True Lies was the most expensive movie ever made when it came out (I remember a rumor that theaters were going to charge higher ticket prices just for this movie, but that never came to be). Unlike other big budget films of the era (Waterworld comes to mind), you can actually see where all the money went. Its action scenes are among the richest I have ever seen, the stunts are legendary, and it hurts to think we may never see actual fighter jets and helicopters interacting with actors ever again.
I’m not exaggerating here: True Lies has some seriously spectacular action. It’s disappointing to realize just a few years later Nicholas Cage was pretending to drive a CGI car while Jedi were becoming digitized dummies. You just can’t cheat your stunts and expect the audience to be wowed. The action sequence on a Florida Keys bridge blows most movies out of the water… and that’s not even the finale.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, Harry Tasker, is a spy who masquerades as a computer salesman. His wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) doesn’t have a clue what her husband really does for a living, but she longs for excitement in her dull life. Meanwhile their teenage daughter thinks her father’s a massive tool because, outwardly, he is. Why a boring white collar worker would have a bodybuilder’s body isn’t important. No one in the movie bothers to notice.
What’s strange about True Lies is the fact it forgets it’s an action movie about midway through. Early on, Harry and his partner (Tom Arnold) are hot on the trail of jihadists who’re attempting to smuggle nuclear warheads into the States. But when Harry discovers Helen is seeing another man (Bill Paxton) he diverts every bit of his team’s intelligence to finding out the man’s identity. Without spoiling too much of it, Helen is subjected to a cruel prank by a stranger, only to be subjected to another cruel prank by the very man she married. The morality of it all is questionable, but, uh, I don’t go to the movies to see saints. I enjoyed it even though the long, action-free middle of the movie might feel like a derailment to some.
And it’s hard to top the last forty minutes. Most movies which combine action and comedy suck at one or the other (often both, as almost every Lethal Weapon rip-off will prove), but True Lies is the rare action film with perfect comedic timing. In one scene Schwarzenegger is hanging from the reins of the horse which flung him over the side of a high-rise building. He glances up to the horse and begs it to save his life. Somehow, the filmmakers goad the horse into smiling back at him. In another scene, in which Schwarzenegger is injected with a truth serum, Helen asks if they’re going to die. He replies, “Yep!”
This isn’t just routine comedy squeezed into the film because audiences expect it to be there. This is genuinely funny stuff, and the timing of it—as well as the editing of the action scenes—reaches a musical quality. Not only was True Lies the glorious swan song of the 80s and early 90s action film, it satirizes the genre at the same time. In Terminator 2, director James Cameron took care to show why his vehicles exploded so as not to disturb our suspension of disbelief. In True Lies, vehicles explode because he’s indulging in gleeful absurdity. And my god it’s infectious.
I watch True Lies practically every time I make adjustments or upgrades to my home theater, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed it more than I do now.