After the debacle that was 1993’s Last Action Hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger needed a hit, and fast. Happily for him, director James Cameron waited in the wings. Schwarzenegger’s most successful outings came with Cameron; 1984’s The Terminator was Arnie’s cinematic breakthrough as an action star, and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day solidified his status as a premier film personality. As such, it made sense that Schwarzenegger would return to prominence alongside Cameron.
While Lies didn’t live up to the heights of their previous collaborations, it nonetheless succeeded on many levels and it re-established Schwarzenegger as a prime talent. Unfortunately for him, this return to form wouldn’t last long. After a modest hit with 1996’s Eraser, Schwarzenegger experienced a series of flops: from 1997’s Batman and Robin to 1999’s End of Days and 2000’s The Sixth Day, Arnie’s lost a great deal of his previous popularity.
Although it wasn’t a great film, Lies did provide one of Schwarzenegger’s best performances alongside T2. Actually, I think he offered stronger work during Lies because it was a more challenging role; instead of the robotic Terminator of those films, Lies forced him to play a James Bond-esque hero with a mix of dimensions involved.
Schwarzenegger stars as Harry Tasker, and the start of the film establishes him as a slick dude in the 007 mode. He suavely infiltrates a party and obtains important information about a terrorist organization. Tasker also seduces sexy Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere) and seems set as a bulkier Bond.
However, once this escapade ends, we discover the twist: Tasker leads a double life. He lives with wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku), neither of whom know anything about his secret agent activities. They think he works as a computer vendor and leads a dull existence. While Tasker pursues the terrorist organization run by Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik), a substory emerges when Helen becomes involved with a phony spy named Simon (Bill Paxton). Tasker fears that Helen’s cheating on him and teaches both parties a lesson.
However, as that secondary tale progresses, worlds collide and Helen learns the truth about Harry’s real job. Taken captive by Aziz’s gang, the rest of the movie shows their attempts to escape and also prevent the use of a nuclear weapon on US soil.
Basically, this was all Bond with a twist. The opening sequence clearly emulated similar scenes in 007 flicks, right down to a tip of the hat to Sean Connery’s wetsuit-to-tux transformation in 1964’s Goldfinger. The family angle kept Lies from being a total rip-off of Bond, and that aspect of the flick helped give it an interesting premise. We’re pretty accustomed to loosey-goosey secret agents, so it was fun to see what happens to a family man who gets involved in the trade.
Surprisingly, Schwarzenegger was up to the challenge. I expected him to do well in the action hero side of the role, but he also made Harry Homemaker fairly believable. Granted, it’s somewhat hard to accept this buffed-out Austrian stud as an ordinary computer salesman, but within the parameters of the part, Schwarzenegger did nicely; he made Harry seem much more average than I would have believed possible.
He also handled the role with more natural humor than usual. All of Arnie’s action parts have their quips and one-liners, and Tasker was no exception. These seemed much less self-conscious and forced than usual, and Schwarzenegger handled other comedic elements with aplomb, such as a scene in which he pretends to be under the influence of a truth serum. Cameron seems to bring out the best in Schwarzenegger, and I felt Tasker provided his most successful work to date.
Another acting-related surprise came from Tom Arnold as Harry’s sidekick Gib. Prior to Lies, Arnold was known virtually exclusively as Roseanne Barr’s obnoxious husband, and I greeted his casting in Lies as a disaster in waiting. However, Arnold provided a true star-making turn through his lightly comic and glib performance. Perhaps the one thing harder to accept than he-man Arnie as blah computer salesman would be tubby and whiny Arnold as a secret agent, but darned if he doesn’t make it work. Granted, it helped that Schwarzenegger did all the heavy lifting, while Gib was left to do the technological grunt work along with assistant Faisal (Grant Heslov), but I still found Arnold to offer a nicely funny and human performance.
Curtis also made her transformation from frumpy housewife to agent-in-training work pretty well. On one hand, it remained tough to believe that either husband or wife in this ordinary, approaching-middle-aged suburban couple would have such hot bodies, but Curtis managed to hide her sexiness until the appropriate time, and she did nicely when placed in more active circumstances. I thought some aspects of her role went for goofiness too strongly - she seemed almost buffoonish at times - but Curtis usually provided an endearing and sympathetic performance.
Across the board, True Lies delivered most of the goods we desire from this sort of bigger-than-life flick. The action sequences were broad and expansive, and Cameron managed to ratchet up the tension and excitement well, and the story itself seemed to be fairly compelling. So why did I feel Lies ultimately failed to achieve greatness?
For one, Cameron offered some of the least focused storytelling of any of his films. After we started to get involved in the terrorist tale, we went off on a long detour to explore Helen’s potential affair with Simon. While this kind of tangent was necessary to allow Helen to learn the truth about Harry’s secret life, it definitely didn’t need to be nearly this long and involved. The film’s main plot got totally lost in the shuffle as we spent many minutes in the pursuit of Helen’s status.
In addition, Cameron exhibited a bizarrely misogynistic tone during Lies that seemed absent from his prior films. Cameron always earned points as a director who presented women in strong roles; both of the Terminator flicks as well as 1986’s Aliens and 1989’s The Abyss did a lot to display women as bold, assertive characters who still managed to appear sympathetic and compelling.
To a degree, that occurred during Lies as well, since we saw Helen’s growth toward the end of the movie. Nonetheless, she failed to even remotely achieve the strength associated with those other roles, and Lies exhibited a surprisingly nasty tone toward women throughout the flick. I heard the word “bitch” used more often than on the last Eminem album, and the general tone seemed to condone subservient and almost sadistic attitudes toward women; the scene in which Harry and Gib interrogate Helen bordered on being perverse. This tone didn’t ruin the film, but it certainly took away from my enjoyment.
Lies also came under attack for its use of Middle Eastern characters as villains, but I thought these concerns seemed to be less warranted. For one, they didn’t seem to be singled out specifically for their nationalities, and I felt the movie avoided the use of any gross stereotypes. Aziz was a bright and charismatic character who just happened to be the bad guy, ala Hans in Die Hard. I understand the sensitivities felt by folks of these nationalities, but I thought they were unwarranted.
Ultimately, True Lies was a very good action movie, but some missteps meant that it wouldn’t achieve greatness. On the positive side, it featured some fine performances highlighted by turns from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold, and director Jim Cameron maintained his usual high standard of action excellence. However, the story took an excessively lengthy detour that detracted from the plot, and the film portrayed women in a light that seemed to be too negative. Despite these flaws, I still enjoyed much of True Lies, but I can’t regard it as a total success.
By the way, anyone who gets Lies to check out Eliza Dushku, you might want to rethink that plan. Although the 2001 edition of Eliza is a serious babe, in 1994 she was a fairly scrawny and gawky kid. Perhaps Lies can be linked with that same year’s Leon for a showdown of the pre-babes, as the latter offers a very young and bony Natalie Portman.
True Lies appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite a few strong segments, a variety of significant problems marred the presentation and rendered it a serious disappointment.
The main concern that appeared throughout Lies came from the very excessive edge enhancement. Halos cropped up around actors and objects during many scenes; they glowed so strongly I wondered if they’d become radioactive. Underneath all of this edginess, the sharpness seemed to be quite good, as the movie would have been crisp and detailed without the “enhancement”. Unfortunately, the artificial addition of the edge often rendered the film blurry, and many examples of jagged edges and moiré effects showed up during the movie. Rarely have scan lines seemed so obvious as they did here; the absurdly high level of edge enhancement left much of the movie a mess.
However, some scenes escaped unharmed, and those often looked excellent. When the edginess didn’t affect the picture, it seemed to be distinct and accurate, and most other aspects of the image were strong. Print flaws caused a few concerns, however, as I noted occasional examples of grain, speckles, and grit. These never seemed intense, but they were somewhat heavy for a fairly recent film.
Otherwise, this was a nice picture. Colors looked very vivid and vibrant. They showed tight tones that appeared clean and bold, with no signs of runniness, bleeding or other issues. Black levels seemed to be similarly deep and rich, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but never excessively opaque. In the end, I went with a “C-“ grade for the image of True Lies simply because the film offered quite a few strong sequences. However, it also provided many flawed shots, so regard that “C-“ as one that teetered on the border of becoming a “D+”.
Happily, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of True Lies offered a much more satisfying affair. Though not perfect, the mix seemed very strong as a whole, and it added a great deal of depth to the film. The soundfield appeared to be consistently excellent. Throughout the film, all five channels displayed active audio that really involved the viewer. From quieter, atmospheric scenes to the many loud and aggressive bits, Lies was an auditory wonder. The sound popped up in logical and well-localized spots, and it all blended together smoothly.
Surround usage seemed to be active and almost constant. The action shots made excellent use of the discrete capabilities of the 5.1 mix, as I heard a lot of split-surround information. Ultimately, the track worked tremendously well and ably supported the film.
Audio quality was generally solid, but some concerns heard there led me to gently lower my grade to an “A-“. Speech usually sounded natural and warm, but some edginess interfered at times. I detected no issues related to intelligibility, but mild crackling did affect the dialogue on occasion. Effects also displayed moderately shrill tones periodically. Most of those elements appeared to be clean and accurate, but sometimes they seemed a bit harsh. Still, they generally offered good dynamics and clarity, and the low-end response appeared tight and deep. Music sounded bright and vibrant, and the score also added positive bass response. Again, these moderate audio flaws caused a few concerns, but as a whole True Lies remained an excellent soundtrack.
Less exciting were the supplements found on True Lies. All we found was the film’s theatrical trailer. As I write this in September 2001, rumors periodically crop up that Fox plan a special edition of True Lies, but nothing has been confirmed.
I hope those reports prove accurate sooner than later, for the current DVD of True Lies doesn’t cut the mustard. The movie itself has some glaring flaws, but it provides an exciting and enjoyable take on the secret agent game. It falls short of greatness, but it still seems like a very good flick nonetheless. While the DVD offers very positive sound, the picture is an edgy disgrace that looks borderline unwatchable at times, and the disc provides virtually no extras. Unless you just can’t live without True Lies, I’d recommend that you skip this messy release and wait for a new version that will hopefully appear in the future.