February 6’s “feature” was a movie I picked out under somewhat false pretenses, but it turned out to be a total delight anyway: True Lies, a 1994 film directed by James Cameron from a script he wrote based on a previous screenplay by Claude Zati, Simon Michaël and Didier Kaminka for a French film called La Totale! For some reason I had thought True Lies was based on a story by Philip K. Dick, which apparently it wasn’t, but though it was an espionage comedy-thrller rather than a science-fiction film it had some very Dickian plot elements, notably the confusion of identities and the ironies emerging therefrom. The film opens at an exclusive party in Switzerland for members of the 0.001 percent, including Arab oil shieks, European bankers and super-villainess Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere), who poses as a dealer in antiquities from the Persian Empire of antiquity but is really the point person for a gang of international Middle Eastern terrorists, the Crimson Jihad, led by Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik). The party is crashed by a mysterious figure in a black diving outfit, who cuts through the ice of a frozen-over lake near the estate where it’s being held; he gets out, takes off his diving helmet, then takes off the hood of the wet suit he was wearing under it, and only after he’s peeled off both layers do we recognize him as the film’s male lead, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold, whom Cameron had previously worked with quite effectively in the first two Terminator movies, is playing Steve Rehnquist, international spy who’s there to trace the terrorist group and find out who their contact is, but he wastes time romancing Juno (“Care to tango?” he asks her) and is set upon by a virtual army of the host’s security guards on snowmobiles, skis and other conveyances.
The fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is able to fend off a small army of people armed with machine guns while his only firearm is a small automatic pistol marks the tone of this movie as one which will exploit the movie conventions — like “Nobody can kill the star” — and at the same time it will make fun of them. After his heroic escape in a truck being driven (badly, since he has a hard time keeping it on the road in icy conditions) by sidekick Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold, who made this film in the wake of his bitter divorce from Roseanne Barr and proves that they didn’t break the mold after they made Frank McHugh), Arnold returns home and we find out that his “real” identity is computer salesman Harry Tasker. In this guise he has a wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis, superb in a deadpan way that reminded me of Carol Burnett) and a daughter, Dana (Eliza Dushku), and though he’s been married to Helen for 17 years he’s somehow been able to conceal his real past completely. Indeed, he’s done such a good job concealing who he really is that his wife, bored by his long absences, has drifted into an as-yet-unconsummated affair with a used-car salesman named Simon (a marvelously droll turn by Bill Paxton), who’s wooed her by falsely claiming to be an international spy. (Helen’s boredom with her husband, who’s really a spy, and its leading her to an affair with someone who says he’s a spy but really isn’t, is the most Dickian element in this film.) A jealous Harry commandeers the resources of his employers, the super-secret Omega Project (their logo looks something like the real CIA’s but proclaims them as “Our Last Line of Defense”), to spy on his wife and stake out her lover, and there’s a great scene in which Simon the used-car salesman tries to sell Harry a bright red 1950’s Corvette that becomes a symbol of Simon’s wanna-be masculinity — and in the film’s one dubious gag (though it’s also quite funny) Harry and Albert trace Simon, confront him and get him so scared he literally pees in his pants.
Eventually Harry has Helen arrested and put in a room where he talks to her in a computer-distorted voice and says she’ll be prosecuted unless he does a job for her, which is to infiltrate a suite at a fancy hotel disguised as a prostitute and plant a bug on its telephone. She’s told she won’t actually have to have sex with the client because “he just likes to watch,” and of course the mystery “client” is Harry himself — but the Crimson Jihad’s fighters crash the scene and take Helen prisoner. The finale takes place at the terror group’s hideout on one of the Florida Keys (recalling not only Key Largo but the isolated Caribbean island setting of the first James Bond film, Dr. No), where they’ve armed a nuclear warhead to go off and blow up the island as a warning to the U.S. that they have three other warheads and can aim each at a major U.S. city if their demand for a total U.S. military pull-out from the Middle East isn’t met. (As Charles once joked about the Unabomber, they seem to be attempting to achieve a desirable political outcome through unspeakably evil means.) Harry rescues Helen, but in the meantime the Crimson Jihad has kidnapped their daughter Dana (it’s indicative of the tone this movie takes and the sheer speed with which Cameron stages it that we don’t ask questions like, “How the hell did they know where Dana was?”) and is holding her hostage, and in the end she winds up precariously balanced on a construction crane high over Miami as Aziz tries to recover the key to turn on his nukes, Dana threatens to throw it in the ocean, and Harry attempts to rescue her by commandeering a U.S. Marine Corps Harrier jet — a plane capable of vertical takeoffs and landings (and which ran so much over budget it was one of the biggest scandals in the history of U.S. defense contracting) — and flying it directly under her and telling her to jump onto it. She does, but Aziz ends up on the plane as well and there’s an exciting, bizarre and hilarious fight scene on the supersonic aircraft, the ultimate parody of all those scenes in old Westerns in which the hero and villain fought it out on top of a moving train.
Through much of True Lies it seemed as if James Cameron were channeling Preston Sturges — if Sturges had lived long enough to make a Bond film it might have come out something like this — and there’s also a certain Keatonesque quality both to the gags themselves and to Schwarzenegger’s deadpan performance. Out of all his directors, James Cameron seems to have been the one who was best at getting Schwarzenegger’s limitations as an actor to work for him; in the two Terminator movies he was literally playing a robot, and here he seems like a more muscular version of Buster Keaton’s “Great Stone Face” as he maneuvers his way through various preposterous situations that test his resourcefulness big-time. Schwarzenegger also made True Lies at an in-between point in his physical transformation from the hot stud of the Conan movies to the grotesque figure he cut when the steroids or whatever he was using to maintain his muscle mass caught up with him, turning his head boxy and making him look like a relief map of the Himalayas — though muscleman buffs will be disappointed that he never appears topless in this film. True Lies got good reviews when it was new — mostly along the lines of, “Even if you don’t like Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’ll like this” — and in James Cameron’s woefully scanty filmography (imdb.com lists 24 directorial credits for him but only eight are for theatrically released features) True Lies falls between Terminator 2 and Titanic and reveals something about Cameron you wouldn’t know from most of his movies: he actually has a sense of humor.