Friday, April 19, 2024

What can I say? I'm a spy


Written and directed by James Cameron (based on the screenplay La Totale by Claude Zini, Simon Michaёl, and Didier Kaminka)

Spoilers: moderate

It's nice, I suppose, when a filmmaker makes what you can describe unambiguously and almost objectively as "their worst movie."  And yes, of course the asterisk here is that 1994's True Lies is only definitely James Cameron's worst movie if we're not counting Piranha II: The Spawning, which Cameron at least didn't used to, and so, for the sake of an appropriately punchy opening paragraph, we won't either.  The nicer part is that True Lies is still pretty good, if very fundamentally flawed; though I'm not sure how to evaluate the abiding sensation that it's kind of James Cameron's worst movie on purpose.

What I mean by this could be summed up by saying "it's the James Cameron movie that seemingly-willfully has the least amount of what you'd recognize as 'James Cameron' in it."  For starters, it's his only project besides Aliens (and, sure, Piranha II) that didn't originate with him; this is true in the trivial but eyebrow-raising sense that it's not an original movie at all, but a remake of French director Claude Zidi's La Totale (and it seems all the crasser that the French film wasn't three years old by the time of its 'roided-out English-language remake's release).  But my understanding is that remaking La Totale wasn't even Cameron's idea; rather, that the prime mover on True Lies was its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, his working relationship with Cameron simply being such that he and the director wanted to do something further together, and La Totale was, indeed, something.

It's awfully easy to distinguish it in the details: Cameron's whole filmography, otherwise, is about characters, pretty much uniformly from blue-collar backgrounds like ex-trucker Cameron himself (even when they're in outer space, or from the future), thrust into situations that involve being betrayed or misled, or at least horribly failed, by their society's ruling class, and this cynicism is most frequently expressed in the form of the government, specifically the military, doing bad and unwise things.  True Lies is about the government, specifically the paramilitary intelligence services, doing bad and unwise things, though it's fine now for some reason, and meant to be funny.  (The effort Cameron's screenplay makes to try to reframe Schwarzenegger's godlike spy as "a working stiff" is frankly amazing, and completely unconvincing.  At least it makes no effort to frame him as if he's ever in real peril, though this is another departure.)  Meanwhile, Cameron's other movies, about half-and-half, have featured female protagonists, commonly quasi-fetishy maternal warriors (the Avatars also have this, despite Neytiri not quite being their "protagonist").  True Lies is about a super-spy who stalks the sort-of-unfaithful mother of his child by suborning the proto-War on Terror surveillance state, then deploys the power of the government on behalf of one-sided role-playing sex, and none of this is, I'd aver, the actual worst or most misogynistic thing about how it treats the wife.  Finally, even viewed from an extreme distance, where mere thematic incongruities get fuzzy, you could still make True Lies out from the rest of Cameron's filmography: there's a grandiosity to those visions that isn't at all present here.

Still, "minor Cameron" obviously means something different than it would for someone else.  True Lies received what, by 1994, had already become Cameron's customary bignessin budget, in runtime, even in the public imagination as an "event"and its achievement of being the world's first $100+ million motion picture is reasonably tangible.  But this bigness is on behalf of a pretty junkily-standard jingoistic programmer, in ways that sometimes hamper it from being good at being a junkily-standard jingoistic programmer, and which, in any case, sure don't help with the significant difficulties it has in pivoting to the things that make it unique (or which had previously made La Totale unique).  And there'll turn out to be a surprising reliance, given this director, upon a real meat-and-potatoes style to the action, only made-up for with a pair of setpieces, very widely-separated, that even bother "doing a Cameron."

In the meantime, the most "Cameron" thing here is how fucking intense the blueshift is on the 4K's color correction.  Or, more substantially, it's that it sort of resembles The Abyss in that our five-times-a-bridegroom spends a great deal of time here dwelling upon marriage's pitfallsthe loneliness of domesticity with a person who has a demanding career, the fear of infidelity, the horror of divorceexcept it's like if The Abyss's howl of desperation were left to sit on the countertop for several years until it rotted into the form of Tom Arnold glibly voicing one's frustrations with women, for instance, "You can't live with them, you can't kill them."  We can mention here that True Lieswhich is a comedy, in addition to being an actioner and romantic thrillergot me to laugh at least as much through a "gosh, you sure can't say that today" sense of shock, which is not exactly the same kind of laugh one gets from "good dialogue" that's "honestly funny."  If I watched the movie again right now, I might scowl through a lot of it, but, by the same token, it keeps it interesting if your rewatches are more appropriately spaced, at thirty years apart.  And, hey, in his defense, he does say you can'ta rule Cameron's screenplay takes so literally that even though it has a female subordinate villain, her villainy will be exercised principally in the form of sexual jealousy and a catfight with the heroine.

So: let's meet our spy, Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger), presently infiltrating a swank meeting between European bankers and Arab petrostate terror sponsors somewhere cold, so that Cameron can tell us what he intends his movie to be, by way of a direct nod to Goldfinger, with Tasker swimming up beneath a frozen pond into a heavily-guarded Alpine mansion before exchanging his wetsuit for evening wear.  Assisted by his support team"Gib" Gibson (Arnold) and Faisil (Grant Heslov)their attempt to hack the mansion's computers ends in a chaotic shoot-out.  Yet Harry does acquire a lead before the shooting starts, in the form of antiquities trader Juno Skinner (Tia Carerre).  Through her, he finds her client, the leader of "Crimson Jihad," Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik), recently come into possession of four ex-Soviet nuclear warheads, now hidden inside four Achaemenid (well, Achaemenid-ish) lamassus so as to be smuggled into the United States through the Florida Keys.  ("Why four?" is not a question Cameron asked himself, certainly not with the same rigor that the writer of Broken Arrow definitely had a reason for his film's "two.")

Back in D.C., however, Harry's wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) is living a life of increasing despondency, what with their kid (Eliza Dushku) growing up and growing distant, and Harry scarcely around anymore, and her own job involving nothing but Northern Virginian drudgery.  It is for these reasons that she's fallen for the sleazy scam of local used-car salesman Simon (Bill Paxton, offering for his pal Cameron what I think you'd have to agree is at least a very generous performance).  Simon is pretending to bewhat's this?a spy, hoping to somehow (it's nebulous exactly how) convince Helen to fuck him.  Harry discovers this, and being a real spy, he finds the trespass gauche on top of everything else.  Through the misuse of an astonishing amount of government resourcesleaving aside any "morality" part, Harry's deployment of a tactical team simply strains one's credulityhe fucks mercilessly with Simon.  However, in the guise of a faceless operative, he offers his wife something he must perceive to be a gift, namely the opportunity to do some "real" sexy spying.  Unfortunately (or not, because even with disbelief completely suspended, I can't see it working out so well for Harry otherwise), in the midst of Helen's "mission" to impersonate a prostitute and bug an arms traffickerHarry himself, in the shadowsAziz and Crimson Jihad catch up with both of the Taskers, taking them hostage and revealing their scheme to extort the United States out of the Middle East one nuked metropolis at a time.

I could see this working, "what if a James Bond movie was also an avowed sex farce?", and it doesn't entirely fail to work heremaybe it works better in La Totale, though I can't make that determinationbut it comes pretty damned close to not working, and there's a number of reasons you could pick.  The one that really sticks out for me is just pure structure: at 141 minutes this isn't even long for a James Cameron movie, yet it's the only one that threatens to be too long.  Somehow it's also too short, or at least it's arranged itself suboptimally.  So, you know the entire thing that makes it special?  The part where Helen plays at spy games and Harry comes along to make it an accidentally-terrifying reality?  It is 42 minutes out of 141 before that even begins, and the entire world-beating terrorist plot grinds to a halt for an extended second act (or a baffling, second act-like object), which itself takes a lot of cumbersome regearing to start.  And this still sort of understates the problem.

Before this happens, "Helen Tasker"portrayed, depending on which marquee you're looking at, by one of True Lies' two above-the-marquee starshas failed to resolve into so much as a tertiary character, even "featured extra" being perhaps overly generous.  I would not be startled to discover that by the end of this movie Arnold (that is, Tom) still has more lines than Curtis does, but he has five times as many before this; even once "Helen Tasker" properly makes her entrance, I'm not sure she ever resolves much further.  The evident goal is to put Helen in a position to be a Cameronesque lady bad-ass, and they kind of just don't have the time to get her there, since actual danger only recommences with about forty minutes left to go, and twenty minutes of that are going to be taken up by the Schwarzenegger Movie material"You're fired" and suchlikewhereas even during most of the remaining twenty minutes Cameron still needs Helen for goofy incompetent-civilian comedy, notably the I-was-shocked-I-didn't-remember-it "dropping the submachine gun down a flight of stairs" routine, which is, I suppose, in line with her I-remembered-this-was-better remarkably-awkward striptease routine.  Though I'm not sure which of these scenes makes her look more inept.  The irritating part, anyhow, is how fucking dumb she remains throughout: very eager to give away the game to terrorists, and downright bizarrely slow to put two and two together viz. Harry's actual profession, to the point where some of Helen's lines in the final act (or whatever) feel accidental, just the simplest method of putting the whole Tasker family in peril.

She's salvaged by Curtis: there's not going to be a great performance here, because Helen just doesn't offer that possibilityI think I've just argued Curtis doesn't quite reach "cohesive character"but it is a terrific piece of craft under very unfavorable conditions.  So credit where it's due: Curtis has worked out a viable approach to Helen, and is so far in command of her physicality that "loser legal secretary approaching middle age" and "woman who's tumbled into the excitement she's always craved" feel almost like different actresses are portraying them.  The former is rendered in such a way that CurtisJamie Lee Curtis, mind youhas somehow managed to minimize the fact of her own chin, and she comes off as helpless and as stupid as Simon's scam would need her to be.  In the latter, however, she's alive, finding flashes of intelligence, anger, and sudden coolness, despite the script giving Helen little of anything actually cool to do; even when she's required to fall back into goofiness, it's a markedly different "goofy."  Plus, she did let Cameron dangle her off a helicopter.  And, for the record, Curtis possessed in 1994 a remarkable body (significantly beyond "working actress" and more like "fitness model") that she's also gamely willing to make an object of fun, even if I question the value of playing the striptease scene with pratfalls.  Or, for that matter, with so much reluctance: I idly wonder if True Lies would be betteras comedy, as romance, as allegorical erotic fun that doesn't feel too bolted into a certain literalism that makes its wife-stalking phase feel slimier than I think it's supposed toif Helen were more actively feeling her fourteen year itch.  But hey, cut Cameron's script some slack.  What does he know about getting bored with a spouse?

Being "better at comedy" generally would've been a good thing here, and it's strange to find Cameron, by no means without a sense of humor in his films but never a barrel of laughs, taking on a comedy.  The instinct for ponderousness is probably one of the reasons that comedy seems so mean, the material asking for a frothiness that Cameron rarely hits the mark of.  (Wanna see Tia Carrere get slapped by an Islamist?  What bubble-light farce!)  So while it's not devoid of edgy fascination as an id-studded object from 1994, it's not especially good at comedy.  This isn't to say totally unsuccessful: what it does have is Schwarzenegger.  I'd probably not be willing to call this a great performance, either, but by 1994 Schwarzenegger had come to fully understand his physicality, too, and has a lot more opportunity than Curtis, playing around with deranged-looking facial expressions that ten years earlier would've been completely unmodulated but are deployed, now, with surgical precision.  Whatever Cameron does or does not understand about comedy, he absolutely figured out this trick, realizing that zooming onto Schwarzenegger's apocalyptic eyes, with his skin stretched into a fearsome rictus as a result of Harry's suppressed murderous rage, his smug triumph, his surprised horniness, and so on, is funny no matter how times you see it; accordingly, Cameron does it in every single scene that could possibly support it, and it saves such an outrageously large fraction of True Lies' comedic phase that it feels like they're cheating.  (And Schwarzenegger is an able scene partner for Curtis, despite not being in the same room as her, for the film's rare and maybe singular piece of actual humane feeling, when Harry's quietly accepting that the state of his marriage is his fault.)

So at least Cameron was trying to stretch his repertoire; it's more perplexing, at first, that he doesn't seem to quite get James Bond movies, as it seems like that should be, broadly-speaking, well in his generic niche.  On consideration, I can see how it eluded him: Cameron movies are not exactly subtle, but they're still serious movies about serious ideas.  They are not cartoons, and while I wouldn't want to pigeonhole a film series as sprawling as Bond to just the single tone, the ones True Lies is interested in are cartoons, sexy, silly nonsense.  Cameron, for all the size of his imagination, perhaps needs a logical reason for things, even stupid things.  His vision doesn't channel readily through pure pulp escapism; it's somewhat impossible to imagine a Ken Adam lair in a Cameron film.  In Avatar, the corporate twerp antagonist practices his putts on a roll-out span of plastic green; in the James Bond film set on Pandora, the corporate twerp antagonist would probably have an entire indoor golf course tricked out with unobtainium, and he'd asphyxiate when someone turned the O2 pump off.  And so in True Lies we have a "James Bond" who, after the prologue, never even leaves his home country again, in a struggle with a movie-movie version of a stereotype of a quotidian adversary.  As much as I genuinely admire the bug-eyed vigor Malik provides in his rendition of the Islamist Terrorist With Nuclear Weapons (this movie has across-the-board strong performances, even Arnold's and Paxton's, on their merits), I'm confused how the movie ever became a locus for accusations of anti-Arab sentiment, except True Lies was such a big blockbuster deal and because it's so sexist you might as well go for the easy up-sell; but the villainy's effectively too flat to be racist.

It is a "Bond" with Cameron muscularity, though, so while probably a majority of the movie's actionwhereas the majority of the movie itself is not action, so we still have that caveatis just basic gunplay, it's still an expensive, sturdily-built "basic."  (Okay, I do love the prologue's beat of Schwarzenegger knocking two hounds' heads together.)  Nonetheless, it offers two setpieces that keep its memory alive beyond "the one between T2 and Titanic": the first is a restroom fight that becomes a chase, Harry on horseback (!), Aziz on a motorbike, that finds some cute ways to continue this odd-looking pursuit onto a more vertical axis, bearing a denouement that's the movie's funniest proper joke; it's long and satisfying, and deflating that it spells the end of action content for an hour, though it's still great.  The finale takes what feels like a long time to fully spool up, but when it does, from the (admittedly extremely Bondian) monster-movie riff of the jet rising up above the floor, to all the clambering around on it in shots that have those great 90s greenscreen textures that let you know most of it's practical, it's probably the highest use of the BAe Harrier outside of the Falkland War.  It leaves you sated, but True Lies is close to a whiff: it's a movie where nearly all I remembered was the Harrier, but I ought to have remembered its romantic metaphor for a marriage retrieved from the doldrums at least as well.  Somehow almost nothing about it ever manages to actually make you feel like that's what it is, and that's a little terrible, considering that's what literally happens in it; and so what really disappoints me about True Lies isn't that it's Cameron's worst movie, because something had to be, but that it's by an excessive margin his most emotionally insincere.

Score: 6/10


  1. On the other hand it has CHARLTON HESTON as ‘We’re not actually allowed to call him Nick Fury, but Jim Steranko would still be proud’ man: also, I see a shameful lack of appreciation for Ms. Tia Carrere as purest eye candy (Fair is fair, after all).

    I do tend to agree that TRUE LIES probably isn’t the best version of itself, despite being quite entertaining: if you’re interested in a Spiritual Sequel, you might want to take a look at FUBAR on Netflix, which I quite enjoyed.

    1. Well, Tia Carerre doesn't take her dress off.

      Something I forgot to mention/wonder aloud about regarding True Lies is whether Jamie Lee Curtis actually looks a lot like Gale Anne Hurd, or if she just looks more like Gale Anne Hurd than she looks like Kathryn Bigelow, Linda Hamilton, or Suzi Amis (and, probably, Sharon Williams). Or if I'm imagining it entirely, just because Gale Anne Hurd and Jamie Lee Curtis have just coincidentally come to look a lot alike as they've aged and rather less so in 1992 or so.

    2. Man, that question is more loaded than a drunken Desert Eagle! (-: