Film Discussion

Looking back at… James Cameron’s True Lies

The early ’90s had been an interesting time for Arnold Schwarzenegger; the decade had started spectacularly for him with Total Recall and Terminator 2 being massive box office successes for the future California Governor and there was a feeling he could do no wrong.

Come 1994, True Lies, Schwarzenegger’s third collaboration with James Cameron, was a film that he desperately needed to be a hit. The previous year had seen Schwarzenegger have the biggest flop of his career. If Last Action Hero had simply underperformed, many wouldn’t have cared, but it ended up being a high-profile flop the likes of which Hollywood and film critics love to pick apart, even years after the event.

It boasted Arnold credited as a producer, was the first high-profile film to come from Columbia Pictures under the ownership of Sony and the eyes of recently hired executives Peter Guber and Jon Peters and was hyped to the hilt, with everyone involved in it proclaiming it was going to be the biggest movie of 1993. Then, Universal Pictures scheduled Jurassic Park to open the week before and the rest, as they say, is history.

While time has been good to Last Action Hero, with a semblance of reappraisal going on in the last few years for its meta-commentary on the action movie genre, the Austrian Oak desperately needed to get his box office mojo back and figured he could do so with a remake of a French film he had discovered called La Totale, which centred around a telecommunications employee who is, in reality, a spy and who keeps his real job secret from his wife and child. Taking the idea to James Cameron, the eventual project would become True Lies and would be the closest that Cameron would come to directing a fully fledged comedy film as well as being a director for hire.

It is in many respects the least personal of Cameron’s projects. While he had been essentially a director for hire on Aliens, he had turned it into something that felt very indicative of his themes and ideas. True Lies has many of the trademarks that many associates with the blockbuster auteur; a nuclear threat is involved, there is a blue tint to the lighting in key moments, Bill Paxton shows up and there’s a Brad Fiedel score.

READ MORE: Looking back at… James Cameron’s The Abyss

Thematically and tonally it feels anomalous to other Cameron projects, particularly with its emphasis on humour and comedy throughout. That isn’t to say that it’s not good; far from it, as True Lies is Cameron on his purest fun form, with both he and his most high-profile on-screen collaborator using the film as a chance to play James Bond essentially and doing it hilariously well. It’s hard not be entertained by True Lies; it may lack the thematic intensity of Terminator 2, or Aliens, although it does have as part of its main plot a marriage in jeopardy which recalls The Abyss, but there is so much fun to be had, with much of the comedy going from slapstick, to observational, one-liners and its lack of fear in throwing in some cartoonish violence to its well-staged action sequences.

As always with Cameron at this point, the film had an incredibly expensive budget, with the film being the first to cost over $100 million at the start of filming and as always, it shows. Unlike Last Action Hero which ended up costing more and more due to the extensive reshoots it had to go through late on in its production, and which left one wondering why it ended up costing so much (even if it is a fun film), True Lies legitimately looks the cost; there are action sequences involving Harrier Jets, a multitude of explosions, great stuntwork and special visual effects that push the envelope in a way that one wouldn’t expect from an action comedy like it.

There is arguably a version of the film that is nowhere near as well made as it is here, but with Cameron on board, and even doing a film here which he was essentially doing as a favour to Arnold, he brings a hundred and ten per cent to the filming.

Released in 1994, the film, as well made and genuinely funny as it is, has developed issues in the twenty-five years since its release which may prove problematic to viewers. For years after its release, talk had always turned to a sequel, but after the events of September 11th 2001, Cameron wisely and correctly pointed out that doing a comedy about the perils of Middle Eastern terrorism would not work at all in the post 9/11 world. In fact, some Muslims took umbrage with the film even on its release in 1994 for believing that the film had an Anti-Muslim bias.

The film’s villains are a Middle Eastern terrorist group called Crimson Jihad, led by Art Malik’s character Salim, and are portrayed as either nuclear weapon toting psychopaths (we see Salim repeatedly slap Tia Carrere’s character Juno in one scene) or incompetent buffoons who get killed in comedic fashion, and in one case can’t tell one end of a rocket launcher from the other and never keep a charged battery in their camcorders.

Admittedly for a while, the film’s last act, where the film unleashes an action sequence involving the Miami skyline and Arnold in a harrier jet all the while Salim holds the city hostage with a nuclear weapon, felt like it could easily be turned to be treated more seriously; as it is in 1994, such a plot line got portrayed with sight gags, gung-ho action and Art Malik attached to a rocket and fired into a helicopter complete with one of the Schwarzenegger’s greatest ever one-liners. Despite the tone being somewhat problematic, it’s hard not to get swept away by the pure cinematic rush of the staging of such a sequence and the seamless, even in today’s age, visual effects.

Then there are the female characters, usually a high point of a Cameron film, some commentators took issue with the treatment of not only Juno but also the female lead of Helen Tasker, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Her performance in the film is without a doubt the highpoint. For the first forty minutes or so we’re pretty much in the territory of a Schwarzenegger action film where his character Harry Tasker, a spy keeping his job secret from his wife and daughter (Eliza Dushku), and his colleagues played by Tom Arnold and Grant Heslov are trying to stop a terrorist organisation. By the time we’re into the second act the film turns a corner and puts more emphasis on Helen who is contemplating having an affair with a rival spy called Simon (the late, great Bill Paxton who is so much fun here) but who is in fact a used car salesman just trying to sleep with her.

READ MORE: Looking back at… James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Harry’s discovery and subsequent manipulation of Helen drew the ire of some critics who felt this stand of the movie was a little harsh and cruel and while some of those criticisms have some merit, Curtis and Schwarzenegger keep the tone light and fun ,and while the striptease scene could be seen as somewhat exploitative, the film does try to keep itself on a light footing so as not to fall into that trap.

Released in the summer, the film was a massive hit for director Cameron and gave Arnold the boost he needed following the critical drubbing and commercial failings of Last Action Hero. Even with some of its perceived issues that might make the film lose points with future generations, it’s hard not to love the film. This may be Cameron’s least personal film, but it represents a peak for Schwarzenegger and a time when action cinema could still be R-rated or 15, as was the case in the UK where the film had to be cut to gain that rating, and unafraid to mix violence and comedy with merry abandon.

It would also be the last time, at the time of writing, that Cameron and Schwarzenegger would collaborate on a movie. It would also be the last time Cameron would direct a pure action film of this nature. The budgets would get bigger for sure, and be filled with spectacle and special and visual effects the likes of which we had never seen before, but the films would be remarkably different, with the next film, in particular, being a different beast to anything that Cameron had done prior.

His films had featured love stories before, but for his next film he would give audiences his purest and most old-fashioned Hollywood love story yet, but one on a large canvas in a recreation of one of the world’s most famous disasters.

First up, though, was a trip to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean…

Are you a fan of True Lies? Let us know.


    1. I totally agree. Rewatching it nowadays there are moments that give you pause, but the whole things is so much fun it’s hard not to just go with it.

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