“True Lies” is a Messy Deconstruction of the Alpha-Male Action Hero

True Lies Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron's "True Lies."

2019 is a year chock-full of James Cameron film anniversaries, and we start with one of his more flawed, but deconstructionist action flicks.

It’s been 35 years since James Cameron made a name for himself with The Terminator, and in that time he’s had a massive impact on the filmmaking landscape. But his actual output of directed films is pretty low. If you don’t count Piranha 2: The Spawning (which he doesn’t, because he was fired two days into filming), Cameron has only directed seven films, which is a Malickian average of one movie every five years. James Cameron only makes a movie when he’s good and ready. 

As it happens, four of those films celebrate significant anniversaries this year: True Lies came out 25 years ago this July, The Abyss is 30 in August, The Terminator is 35 in October and his most recent film Avatar turns 10 in December. To commemorate these milestones, I’m going to look at each film and talk about what makes them special.   

Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the protagonist of 1994’s action comedy True Lies, is the very model of the Traditional American Male Action Movie Hero. He’s super competent at his job, is ready for furious action to break out at just about any moment and is a devil with the ladies. In the opening sequence of the movie, Harry takes a break from an important operation at a glamorous party in Vienna to flirt and dance a sensual tango with beautiful art dealer Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere). He also has a wisecracking best-friend/partner in Albert (Tom Arnold, in probably his only good performance) and a grouchy boss (Charlton Heston in an eyepatch) who reluctantly supports their not-by-the-book shenanigans. He’s also played by Arnold Fucking Schwarzenegger, the biggest action star of his, or any, era. 

Harry checks off all the boxes for a traditional hero, but he’s also a bad husband and father. He barely pays attention to his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a layered performance that won her a Golden Globe), and his teenaged daughter (Eliza Dushku) can barely stand him. Harry’s dedication to his glamorous, exciting job and its whiplash demands comes at the expense of his family, who thinks he’s a boring office drone. When Harry suspects Helen of an affair, he diverts agency resources and agents into tailing his wife at the expense on an on-going operation. 

“I saw the film as an Anti-James Bond, a reality check on the uber-male fantasy” Cameron once said of the film, according to Rebecca Keegan in her book The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron. “Bond himself is a pathetic eternal bachelor who will never know the truth of what it is to be a man, to be a husband and father, which is why that fantasy works… because Bond has nobody to answer to.”

Harry knows how to fight people, and how to charm them. But when he discovers his wife might be cheating, he reverts to his comfortable secret agent persona, treating her more like a suspect than a partner. The tailing and bugging are played for laughs and it’s great fun, but it’s also an expression of his limitations as a person. Harry’s not equipped to deal with the honesty and openness that comes with an adult relationship. 

Ironically, the man Helen is seeing is a used car dealer named Simon (the late, great Bill Paxton), who’s pretending to be a spy in order to impress her. Simon even takes credit for some of Harry’s exploits from earlier in the film. Harry is a spy pretending to be a salesman, and he’s in danger of losing his wife to a salesman pretending to be a spy. The man Helen wants is the man Harry is hiding from her. True Lies isn’t anti-action movie or action movie hero, it just argues that the character type is flawed and incomplete Harry’s not wrong or bad to want to be a hero; he just doesn’t share his passion with Helen. The adolescent fantasy needs to grow up.

But before he can do so, there needs to be an emotional climax, and this is where the whole movie comes unglued. Harry and Albert kidnap Helen and interrogate her like a prisoner at Gitmo: she sits alone in a room, on a stool with no back to rest on and a glaring light on her face while Harry sits in a comfortable chair on the other side of a two-way mirror, with his buddy at his side. They’re surrounded by machines reading Helen’s every reaction, and they speak into microphones that distort their voices. It’s an expression of the unequalness of their relationship; Harry knows her, but she doesn’t know him at all. 

Curtis is amazing in the interrogation scene. She starts off scared and confused and then, when asked about her marriage, becomes tender and emotional and finally when she tires of being toyed with turns angry and defiant. Here, Harry the deceptive spy sees what true strength is. Helen is completely exposed and vulnerable, but she overcomes her fear and stands up for herself. Schwarzenegger is great too; he goes from moral indignation (how dare Helen cheat on me) to shock and regret (my wife is unhappy and unfulfilled and I had no idea). A plot about his pain and anger becomes about his recognition of his own failures as a husband.  

Harry recognizes that Helen wants an exciting life like his, so he tries to give it to her in the form of a bullshit “mission” that involves going to a fancy hotel and doing a strip-tease for a shadowy figure (who turns out to be Harry) to plant a bug on his phone.  Like in the interrogation scene, Curtis does an excellent job of transitioning, this time from a clumsy repressed housewife to a sleek and powerful Mata Hari-like spy over the course of the routine. She’s the perfect counterpoint to Schwarzenegger’s Bond; you can feel the control of the scene shift from Harry to Helen, as she discovers a bold and exciting part of herself that she never knew existed. 

Everything makes sense, Harry learns a lesson and Helen realizes she’s much stronger than she knew. But it’s also a sequence where a man kidnaps his wife and forces her into sex work. It’s clear that it’s all a metaphor for marriage and how Harry learns to open himself up and share his life with Helen, and at no point does the movie suggest that Harry is in the right. The moment he learns of the affair, his shock and fury at his wife is rebuffed by Albert, who says, “What did you expect? Helen’s a flesh and blood woman and you’re never there.” But while you’re never supposed to root for Harry while he’s behaving badly; you’re at least supposed to laugh

Maybe ifTrue Lies had been meaner from the start, it could have managed such a dark turn. Schwarzenegger’s own Total Recall covered similar ground by suggesting that the ideal fantasy of the average action movie fan is to murder their wife and fuck a space hooker while killing as many people as brutally and bloodily as possible. But Cameron is more of a humanist than Recall’s Paul Verhoeven; he wants his characters to change and grow.  Sure, when Helen finally learns that her husband has been deceiving her, her first response is to punch him in the face. But they inevitably make up, team up, kill the bad guys, and save the world. 

For two hours, True Lies is a really entertaining movie. It’s well acted (it’s Schwarzenegger’s best, most complex role in many ways) with great action and a lot of laughs. It has a valuable perspective on the limitations of masculinity and the necessity of open communication in a relationship. But there are ten minutes right there in the middle that are just irredeemable. What makes it special and unique is also what kneecaps it and makes it hard to watch. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s hard to call it good — which is a shame because so much of it really does work. 

True Lies Trailer:

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