True Lies (1994) — Extreme marriage counseling

“I married Rambo!”

Justin’s rating: The ultimate date movie? It’s got something for everyone!

Justin’s review: I’ll admit that I harbor an obsessive fixation on the career of James Cameron. He’s pumped out some of the biggest cinematic hits of all time while slowing down his three-movies-per-decade cadence to “maybe one, maybe none” for a while now. Perhaps the strangest anomaly in his rise to super-directordom in the ’80s and ’90s was a spy/romance flick that was sandwiched between Terminator 2 and Titanic.

It’s not that True Lies is a small film — it had a $100 million budget and one of the biggest action stars in the world attached — but it’s always felt more mid-tier than his other highly ambitious projects. Perhaps that’s why I have a fondness for this movie, because it’s something of the size and scope that Cameron never made previous or since. It’s in its own category.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Harry Tasker, an elite agent of an anti-terrorist spy group. He does the normal things that spies tend to do in these kinds of movies, including getting into horse chases in Washington DC, shooting out entire floors of buildings with a hover jet, and infiltrating Swiss strongholds (this would be a year before James Bond rebooted in Goldeneye). But the twist here is that to his family, this weirdly over-muscled guy is just a dull salesman who is away from home for a suspicious amount of time.

So suspiciously long, in fact, that his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a phenomenal role) suspects that Harry is cheating on her. So she starts spying on the spy, eventually getting caught up in a huge terrorist operation that involves a nuclear weapon and a guy with a rather large grudge against America. To make it out alive, Helen’s going to have to tap into her own inner action hero — and hopefully forgive Harry for lying to her all these years. And Harry might have to forgive her of getting a little bit too flirty with a strange guy named Simon.

As a straight-forward action flick, True Lies would’ve been just fine. It’s got some great special effects and stunt work (we weren’t fully into the CGI-takes-over-everything era yet), Arnold is funny and likable as a lead, and the spy angle is cool. But what makes a good film better is the central focus on Helen and Harry’s marriage. In a way, it’s both the absolute worst and best time for this couple to address their growing problems at home, and instead of it driving them further apart, it turns out to be the type of extreme counseling they both need.

Curtis and Schwarzenegger have really solid chemistry together — augmented by their movie daughter, played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Eliza Dushku — and I appreciated how Curtis’ Helen isn’t steamrolled by the script. She holds her own, has great moments of comedy, and ends up being just as essential to foiling the terrorist plot as Harry.

True Lies’ other strength is in its comedic writing. The whole premise and most of its action scenes are absolutely ludicrous, so having the movie winking at that rather than trying to play it straight was the right call. The famous seduction dance scene, where both Harry and Helen come at it from different angles, is way more about being funny than sexy. And there’s a great subplot with the spies tormenting Bill Paxton’s sleazy used car salesman.

I mean, when’s the last time an action movie starred and focused on a married couple? It’s simply not done. That’s why I’m glad James Cameron did it before he started diving to the ocean floor and dreaming of giant blue space smurfs.

Didja notice?

  • The music here is really good
  • Harry’s subvocal communications is betrayed by him always talking with his mouth
  • “You do not have time to tango, buddy!”
  • “Here’s my invitation.” BOOM
  • Smacking the dogs’ heads together
  • “It’s called ice, and it gets a little slick!”
  • Harry kills an awful lot of guards in this opening bit
  • Harry almost forgetting his wedding ring… SYMBOLISM
  • Hey, it’s a nice snowglobe, don’t throw that out, kid!
  • “Boy, I remember the first time I got shot out of a cannon.”
  • Janice is armed and has no sense of humor
  • CHARLTON HESTON… with an eyepatch
  • “So far, this is not blowing my skirt up, gentlemen.”
  • The guys tangoing
  • This bad guy is super slappy
  • The poor guy sitting on the toilet
  • They absolutely trash that bathroom
  • “My horse is getting tired.” “Your horse?”
  • How is a guy shooting a gun while riding a horse through a hotel while chasing a guy on a motorcycle not the top story in every newspaper in the country the next day?
  • Harry’s little smirk on the elevator
  • Horses LOVE to be jumped from skyscraper to skyscraper!
  • “They call him the Sand Spider.” “Why?” “Probably because it sounds scary.”
  • “Welcome to the club, man!”
  • “I’m starting to like this guy! …Oh, we’ve still got to kill him. That’s a given.”
  • Harry punching the car window
  • “Maybe she’s sleepy.”
  • Helen’s a born fighter
  • Heh Simon pees himself
  • Helen’s hallway transformation always impressed me
  • Harry dropping the tape recorder
  • The camcorder running out of battery
  • The torturer’s dismayed gasp always gets a laugh
  • Dropping an Uzi down stairs can wipe out an entire platoon of bad guys
  • Improvised flame thrower
  • The terrorist who gets blown out the front of the truck window
  • Need to stop a couple of trucks? Just blast the bridge with missiles. Nobody needs to use the Florida Keys highway, right?
  • Done in by a pelican
  • The most romantic nuclear explosion ever
  • “What key?”
  • The jet coming up through the binoculars is a great moment

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