True Lies (1994)

True Lies is one of the good action-comedies. It’s a film that has some inventive action scenes, as well as a generally light tone mixed in with cartoon levels of violence. It’s action-packed, funny, and there isn’t a dull moment even though its running time is almost two and a half hours. Its plot is enjoyable, the screenplay has more than half a brain, and it’s a movie that is fun from start to finish. All in all, it’s worth seeing.

The film opens with Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) attempting to pull off a mission for a covert government operation. He’s a spy, not unlike James Bond, and the first job we see him do involves infiltrating a high-class party and stealing some information from a computer. He does it with style, class, and, eventually, explosives. It’s funny to watch and it easily sets the tone for the rest of the picture. Adding on: Harry is married to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), has a daughter, Dana (Eliza Dushku), and neither of them know about his actual job. They think he sells computers.

At this point you’ve already come to the assumption that either Helen or Dana will get involved with one of Harry’s missions. You’re right, except it winds up being both of them in different capacities. But it takes a long time for the film to reach that point. First, it has to go through a long subplot involving Helen maybe-or-maybe-not cheating on Harry with another man, Simon (Bill Paxton), all while Harry uses his special set of skills to spy on her, as well as attempting to bring down a group of terrorists, as is his job.

Some of the scenes are outrageous and over-the-top violent. You’re not going to be impacted by the violence, because it’s ultimately very silly. But despite this, there’s a lot of creativity to the action. There are a few moments you won’t have seen in other films, while others have been crafted in a way that makes them feel new again. Simple shootouts can be made exciting again with the right director at the helm, and True Lies has James Cameron.

There are a bunch of scenes where dramatic irony is at play. That leads to some truly hilarious moments. I’m undecided as to whether the film works better as an action movie or a comedy, but that I’m even debating between the two means that it does both quite well. I laughed a lot and had my adrenaline pumping for most of the time it played. That’s a success in my books. That’s also really all that True Lies needed to do. Having deeper characters would have improved things, but it didn’t need them.

Some people going to have an issue with the adultery subplot. In particular, it seems to halt the main plot and much of it isn’t necessary. There are a couple of scenes that, while funny, run on for too long. I’ll agree, but I think that they add to the finished product. It’s possible that True Lies could have been cut down to 120 minutes instead of the 135 that its final cut is, but those extra 15 minutes are fun and don’t really ruin the pacing. Why would you want to get less bang for your buck?

It also has some less-than-clear villains. The main bad guys are terrorists, although their motivation is only revealed after we’ve been watching for 90 minutes already, and they’re helped by at least one character whose sole driving factor is the money. I didn’t buy it. The characterization is so thin that I couldn’t believe someone with a lucrative business would help terrorists nuke America because they pay well. 135 minutes is plenty of time to craft genuine characters instead of paper-thin caricatures.

That’s especially true of our lead, who is about as deep as a hot tub. Sure, there’s a bit of depth there, but when compared to a swimming pool, it’s going to look inadequate. The character is all-good, and apart from being good and liking his job, there’s not much propelling him from scene to scene. He has to because he’s the hero, essentially. Helen is better, in that she at least has seemingly unachievable ambitions due to her current position in life — which gets shattered later in the movie — and she winds up the most human of the main cast.

Maybe part of that reason is that Jamie Lee Curtis is such a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger. She can bring something to a role that he can’t — emotion, for one — and that means she can craft things into her performance that weren’t in the script. Schwarzenegger is here for the action, and while he’s fine at that, I don’t think many people are going to call him a good actor. He’s got a certain charm, I suppose, but that’s about it. He’s a star because he has the physique to make a believable action hero.

Despite its flaws, True Lies is a very funny and entertaining action-comedy. Sure, it doesn’t have strong characters or motivations, but those aren’t necessary; they are bonuses. Schwarzenegger can pull off the action hero, and he’s given a lot of over-the-top scenes to do that in. There are a lot of laughs along the way, too, and while the film doesn’t need to be as long as it is, it’s never really dull and I enjoyed it a great deal while it was playing.

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