If you’re one of those neophyte, knuckle-dragging movie wanderers, ignorant to the true power of badass cinema, you might be forgiven for thinking that Last Action Hero is the only parody movie of Schwarzenegger’s movie career. But you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. Instead, that honour lies with Arn’s third (and currently final) partnering with elite director James Cameron.
Let’s talk about their collaborative swansong. Lets talk about True Lies.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator) is Harry Tasker to his family and Harry Renquist to his work buddies. See, Harry is a spy. He works for some secret agency called the The Omega Sector. Who they are, their juristictional boundaries and all that isn’t really explained. All we’re given is that they’re “the last line of defense” and that Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes) is in charge. He’s got an eye-patch like Nick Fury, pre-Marvel movie days (it even pre-dates this heap of shit).
We start in Switzerland. We’re at a stately home in a snow-swept part of the country. There’s heavy duty guards everywhere. Search-lights, dog patrols, AK’s. The whole nine-yards. But someone is breaking in, underwater. See, the pool is handily connected to a local stream, and some daring sonofabitch is cutting through the metal fencing that keeps all the big fish out.
Climbing out behind a little shed, we’re introduced to Tasker/Renquist. Quickly he removes the wetsuit to reveal an immaculate tux. After planting a bomb, he’s into the house. Some fancy party with loads of dignitaries and generals is in full swing. He side-steps the roving guards and makes his way upstairs. Hacking into a secluded computer, he starts sending it’s data wirelessly (impressive, considering it’s the early 90’s) to the a van parked down the street.
Inside we’ve got Albert “Gib” Gibson, played by Tom Arnold (Exit Wounds), he’s the fat mouthy one, and Faisal (Grant Heslov – Enemy of the State) the obligatory tech dweeb. He’s totally stoked over the data they’re getting from this computer. But the gig is up for Harry – they’ve found his swimsuit outside. Smoothly making his way back into the party, he runs into the beautiful art collector Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere – Waynes World). Care to dance? How could she resist Arnold in a tux?
A quick Tango later, and he’s out the door. He’s approached by a guard.
“Can I see your invitation?”
The whole compound disintegrates into guns being fired and guards running at Harry and getting shot. He even takes down two dogs. Not with his gun, mind. Instead he just knocks them unconscious with his fists. He’s a good guy, remember.
Heading down the mountain-side he’s given the opportunity to nail a variety of seasonal ski-guards. With him in a tux, the film is at it’s most James Bondish here. Seriously, it’s like the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me, just less Union Jack and more Austrian Oak. Soon he’s back in the van and on his way home to the states.
Rolling up in some suburb, Gib hands Harry his alibi, his wedding ring, and some cheap gift for his daughter. See, here is the twist. Harry Tasker maybe James Bond nine to five. But come hometime he’s married with a kid.
He’s been a spy for 17 years. Married for 15. So I can sort of understand why he didn’t tell Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis – Trading Places). It’s a matter of national security, after all. But despite being a suave badass at work, he’s a boring middle class bastard at home. Helen asks him about his day at the sales office (he’s in IT according to his cover story) to fall asleep. Plus his teenage daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku – Wrong Turn) is in that troublesome teenage Kurt Cobain phase, so she don’t respect shit, especially her wholesome Dad.
Things are actually pretty bad for Harry. Not only did he screw the pooch on the Switzerland op, his kid is stealing from him, and Helen is considering having an affair.
That’s right, after missing another birthday dinner Harry is in the dog house. He was actually chasing terrorist master-mind Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik – Wolf Man) through a hotel on a horse, but he can’t tell her that, can he? So he decides to surprise Helen at work. But before he can pounce, he overhears her talking on the phone to some guy. This dude, Simon, is saying things like they have to meet, and that he needs her. Harry is devastated, though Gib seems made up by his pal’s heartache. Being the fat sarcastic prick that he is, he’s already blown through two divorces.
But Harry isn’t about to take this lying down. He’s going to use all the resources available to him to find out WTF is going on. So he bugs her handbag.
The next day they track her on the secret date. They listen in as she meets up with Simon (Bill Paxton – Twister). Basically, he’s some slimeball used cars salesman who pretends to be a spy to get bored housewives to sleep with him. He’s working Helen over this time, feeding her lines like “things have been too hot recently” and “fear is not an option”. In fact, that little incident the other night at the hotel? His handiwork.
Posing as a potential buyer, Harry gets Simon to reveal all. He describes the husbands of the women he tricks as “dickless” and goes into graphic detail as to the raunchier side of Helen’s body. Harry imagines exactly what he’d like to do.
But he continues the charade back to the car lot. That night, he has Gib and more of his Omega guys tracking both Simon and Helen. She meets him and they both drive off in his car. “It’s probably best that you’re not seen with me”. He guides her head down into his lap, getting big laughs from the surveillance chopper watching them. Harry seethes. We laugh.
They pull up in a trailer park. Just one of Simon’s safe houses. His place in the city is just too hot right now. Evidently, he’s gone to a lot of effort making it look a genuine home and not a spy base. The bowling trophy is a nice touch. He tries to persuade Helen to come to Paris with him on a “mission” where she’d masquerade as his wife. On a whim, she agrees. “You just saved my life”. But she has to look the part. She has to feel comfortable with his hands all over her, and his tongue down her throat. She’s totally nervous and isn’t going for it (to her credit).
Just as she’s about to cry rape, Omega cuts the trailer in half and drags them out. Simon goes to pieces, but Helen fights, blasting Gib (he’s wearing a mask) in the dick with her stiletto. Some other balaclava-dude puts her down with a quick rifle butt. Harry ain’t cool with this and knocks him the fuck out. She has a hood thrown over her face, and all goes black.
Helen is taken to Omega HQ and interrogated. She still loves Harry, but just felt ignored and bored, and the attention from Simon was nice. But she didn’t sleep with him. That much is made totally clear. Harry doesn’t investigate if she piped Simon off or not; he’s content enough with the fact they didn’t have sex. The rest he’ll just have to get over.
So he gives Helen a mission and a codename (Doris). Boris will be in touch in the next few days with the specifics.
This time Harry pulls out all the stops. Helen gets a call and is told to go to another nearby hotel. She has to dress sexy. There she’s to meet a French arms dealer. She’s playing a pro called Michelle. Don’t worry though, coz he just likes to watch. She has to plant a bug by the phone in the room, otherwise she’ll go to jail for aiding an abetting a known terrorist (Simon – who was let go by Omega after pissing his pants).
She gets there, tarts herself up, and heads into the room. There’s a shady guy in the bedroom, his face concealed by shadows. It’s secretly Harry in control of a dictaphone with some pre-recorded French lines like “Dance for me” and “Do it slowly. Do it sexy”. That kind of nonsense. She complies with a pretty jaw-dropping sequence that still makes any guy watching the film with their female counterpart feel very awkward.
As Harry puts the moves on her, she smashes him in the face with the telephone (but still manages to plant the bug). Before she can escape, Harry, in genuine Arn-voice admits “I can explain all this”. It’s all ruined though, as Aziz has figured out (we never find out how) that they’re both there, blows through the walls and takes them both prisoner.
They’re taken to some island in the Florida Keys, where Harry is forced to admit he’s a spy, he’s killed people (they were all bad), and confirms via video that Aziz and his guys “The Crimson Jihad” have nukes and aren’t afraid to use them. Helen and himself are going to be left on the island with one of the bombs as a demonstration of their power. Juno is also there. In fact, she’s been smuggling in the nukes in the same crates her ancient art pieces were shipped in. She starts spinning stuff like how she and Harry had a great time together to mess with Helen. Obviously she’s lying, but Harry hasn’t got a leg to stand on when it comes to honesty.
He’s shot up with some truth serum and he spills everything, including how he plans to escape. Remember those hand-cuffs they slammed on him? Well he’s picked them. He free’s Helen and makes his way back to the main compound to disable the bomb and stop Aziz. Soon stuff gets out of hand, and he’s forced to go loud (but not after some awesome neck-breaking stealth kills – seriously, the sound department go all out for that “vertebrae crunch” sound effect).
Dispatching a load of the terrorists (with Helen backing him up), Aziz shoo’s him away into the ocean with a bazooka. Helen is then captured by Juno, and thrown into a limo as a hostage. Two other bombs are bring driven off the island via this massive bridge in trucks, whilst the third is being flown away in a helicopter with Aziz.
Harry resurfaces just as Gib turns up with a chopper of his own. They mobilise the airforce, who turn up in Harriers to take out the two trucks. They blow the bridge, destroying one truck utterly. The other drops off the edge after some Italian Job-styled hilarity. Further up the bridge, the limo is approaching the gap. After a total bitch fight inside, Helen emerges from the sun-roof to be scooped up by Harry dangling from the bottom of the chopper. It’s a ballsy stunt from the bygone days of physical stunt work. Juno and the limo drive off the edge and into oblivion. She was hot, but totally needed to die.
Everyone lands and Helen and Harry reconcile as the nuke explodes miles away. How romantic. Gib interrupts and tells them that somehow the Crimson Jihad have gotten to Dana (yeah, this shit is personal), and they’ve taken her and the last nuke to a half-built high-rise in the city. Harry borrows one of the jump jets and…jets over there.
Omega have a man inside (Faisal is posing as a camera man), and during the taping of another one of their video blogs, Dana steals the detonation key for the nuke. She scarpers up the building with Aziz and co. in hot pursuit. She climbs out on a crane as Harry turns up and bids her jump down to him. This is in the midst of Harry fighting off an attack chopper and Aziz shooting at him too. It’s all pretty crazy.
His solution is to kill two birds with one stone. Aziz has also dropped onto the plane, and with a quick flick of the stick, Harry has him hanging from one of the missiles. He then fires said rocket through a gap in the building at the chopper. “You’re fired”.
Harry and Dana land and get off before anything else can happen. One year later, they’re all at home together, happy with each other once again. Then the call comes in. Boris and Doris? Time to suit up.
They’re back at some high class gig. Black ties and dresses. Ironically, Simon is there as a waiter, still trying to seduce some babe with his story. Helen soon sorts that out. And then the music hits and it’s time to tango one last time.
Fade to black.
Twenty years after it came, there are some things that are immediately apparent about True Lies. First, it was Arn’s last great film before Governorhood. Second, lots has changed in the world since then. No shit, Sherlock? What I mean specifically is our perception of women in movies, the portrayal of terrorists, and the general concept of covert organisations. Everything has been flipped on it’s head since True Lies. Women are now just as badass as the guys (Odin help you if they’re not), terrorists aren’t seen as some catchall bad-guy who can be killed off in ways like in a Tom & Jerry cartoon, and dodgy institutions like the CIA are generally hated and derided.
Both Helen and Juno are there for eye-candy. Now, there’s nothing entirely wrong with that, but they’re both framed as inferior characters to their counterparts, Harry and Aziz. Helen sort of bumbles around, and the one time she gets a chance to sort of change and grow is where she does that sexy dance. Sure she’s as cool as a cucumber at the end, but the journey isn’t really there. I think a more modern take on the story concept in general, Mr & Mrs. Smith, handles this gender stuff way better. Jolie is the equal to Pitt, throughout.
That’s not to say that True Lies is in any way a bad movie, or suffers from these changing times. Come on, I did say it was one of Arn’s last great movies, dickhead. It does plenty right. There’s some fantastic action, some great quips, and the concept is a million miles away from most other generic spy films out there. The main drama isn’t the attempt to foil the plot of some bastard. Instead, it’s Harry losing his family.
We feel bad for him. We couldn’t really give a damn if he get’s Aziz or not. It’s sort of like an Anti-James Bond concept. Where Bond would screw anyone to accomplish his mission, Harry has deeper problems and motivations.
This ties into what I call Arnology. Yes, I’ve stolen the vernacular of Vern, one of the great minds and proponents of badass cinema. In his book “Seagalogy“, he argues that certain motifs and themes pervade every movie of Steven Seagal. These transcend each role, and encompass his body of work as a whole. I happen to think the same way for Arnold, just that it’s different things that reoccur. In this case, it’s the idea that he’s a good guy. And I mean the good guy, not just the dude who hunts down the bastard. No, Harry Tasker is nice. Polite. Almost wholesome. When he’s riding through the hotel, you bet he’s apologising to everyone. Here his marriage comes first, and he’ll do anything to save it.
He doesn’t mind killing bad guys, but when it comes to animals, he’ll merely stun them (a nice Save the Cat moment at the beginning). He doesn’t even beat up Simon. He thinks about it, but ultimately does the right thing and lets him go. What a guy.
This is all to make you forget and accept the fact that Arn is better than us. He’s physically superior to us. He has a super hot wife (when she wants to be). He’s got a good, important job. As the hate-filled humans that we are, we just can’t stand people who are better/more successful/stronger than us. Arn is all of those things but we like him anyway. Why? Because Arnology.
(Seriously, think about most of his non-cyborg films, and you’ll find this to be true)
In fact, where I think this film suffers the most is not down to the dated elements. It’s the story itself. Basically, the bit in the middle is the best part. The B story where Helen is meeting Simon, should have been the A story. Seriously, this gets the most laughs like the physical comedy of Harry destroying everything accidentally in a rage. Then we’ve got Gib’s annoying quips and the whole delicious irony of Simon’s approach.
That whole terrorist plot? Meh, that’s there to blow millions on in special effects and action choreography. It’s all handled well by Cameron, but all the cheap terrorist gags feel more like a forced episode of Wacky Racers than a high level action movie. I dunno, maybe all that stupid stuff like when the camera runs out of batteries when they’re filming their threat video, or Aziz crushing his balls on the tail of the jump jet just seems off in a post 9-11 world. Plus, this side of the story starts as serious as a heart attack. It just becomes absurd over time for no reason whatsoever.
Being a serious Thesp, I’m surprised Art Malik (as Aziz) didn’t want something a bit more sinister, a bit more serious to chew on. Instead, his turn at bad terrorist bastard slowly transforms from being a serious threat to an angry Dad scolding his bumbling kids all of the time. There’s no funny executions like in Desperado. He just sort of gets on with it, accepting that pretty much everyone in his Jihad is a fucking idiot. He does a lot of shouting.
This is the safest James Cameron movie. Coming off T2 (and his divorce to Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow), both he and Arnold probably wanted something light to work with. So they decided to go with a re-imagining of the French La Totale!. From my extensive Wikipedia research, True Lies seems to be a pretty accurate remake, just with an extra hundred million dollars to shoot it, and Schwarzenegger as the star.
But let’s not get too negative. I still see True Lies as not the beginning of the twilight years, or as a slippery descent into post T2 mediocrity. Instead, Judgement Day can be seen as the climactic battle between the good guys and the bad guys. True Lies is the epilogue to that battle, to that story. It’s like one of those endings in The Return of the King. Or a stinger from any Marvel movie. Without it, the story would have been told, and told well. But, this little extra nugget makes you smile. Makes you happy. That’s where True Lies belongs. Not in the pantheon of great Arn epics. But as a nice going-away present.
Get it watched.