Journey back with me 20 years. It’s 1994. Arnold Schwarzenegger can open a movie by himself. Jamie Lee Curtis is known for more than selling yogurt that helps you poop. Tom Arnold is considered “in demand.” It seems like so long ago. Now look at the blockbusters today. They’re so grim, so serious. They don’t know how to have fun.
True Lies, written and directed by James Cameron, never leaves a joke untold or a gas truck unexploded. It’s ridiculous and knows it. It didn’t know when to say quit. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made. But because James Cameron knows how to spend his lavish budgets wisely, the Oscar-nominated special effects still impress.
Schwarzenegger plays Harry, a software salesman who’s really a counter-terrorism agent. He’s so suave he probably could have stolen a few ladies from James Bond himself. In the opening scene he literally rips off his wetsuit to reveal a dry tuxedo, then grabs a sexy antiques dealer — in the ’90s there was no other kind — and dances the tango with her to avoid the bad guys.
Cracking jokes in the van is his partner Gib (Tom Arnold). You may not believe this, but there was a time when Tom Arnold was considered funny. From 1993-1996, he cracked up my pre-pubescent self in movies like Undercover Blues, Nine Months, Carpool and The Stupids. He was a great second banana.
One of the things I love about True Lies is that it’s incredibly ridiculous but knows when to be realistic. Tom Arnold may shoot at the bad guy, but the movie knows that he should back off and let Schwarzenegger chase him down. And maybe that chase involves Schwarzenegger on a horse, and maybe Schwarzenegger will try to leap from one rooftop to another on that horse, but that horse isn’t going to actually do it.
But the thing that really makes True Lies such an enduring classic is Jamie Lee Curtis’ totally committed performance as Harry’s mousy wife Helen. She’s so bored with her life as a secretary and her stale marriage, she’s easily seduced by a total prick like Simon (a perfectly douchey Bill Paxton), who pretends to actually be a spy. Her poise and comic timing and effortless sex appeal make for a killer performance. Her striptease is the stuff of legend, but it’s really her comedic instincts that make her so winning in this role.
True Lies runs 2 hours and 20 minutes and not coincidentally is about 20 minutes too long (and needlessly complicated). I’m sorry, but swinging by Washington, D.C. to kidnap Schwarzenegger’s daughter, then coming back to Miami to plant your nuclear warhead on top of a building, while demanding a news crew come up and interview you, seems like a few steps too many. Cameron always insists on one final showdown with the bad guy, and we get an epic, Die Hard-style fall from the 50 stories up, but Cameron also makes sure the villain gets whacked in the groin before that happens.
To some, that may sound needlessly obnoxious. But considering that nearly every blockbuster this summer has been an ultra-serious dirge, maybe they could use a little juvenile humor. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a movie that ends with Schwarzenegger smiling and saying, “You’re fired,” while he launches a bad guy caught on his jet’s missile directly into a helicopter full of his henchmen. That’s how you properly make things go boom, Michael Bay.