True Lies

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What James Cameron sets out to do with True Lies (1994), and does, is to make a genre film that is absolutely about its genre without ever being openly analytical or challenging. The film’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, teamed with director John McTiernan on The Last Action Hero (1993) the previous year, constructing a film whose concern with genre mechanics is similar to True Lies but whose “on-the-nose” execution prevents the film from ever sustaining the suspension of disbelief for very long.

True Lies essentially casts Arnold Schwarzenegger as the ultimate action hero, but subverts the trappings of the genre by pushing the extremes one associates with action films to comedic places. For instance a chase scene that should be a motorcycle in pursuit of another motorcycle is transformed into physical comedy by putting the hero on a horse instead. Likewise, True Lies has as its centerpiece the narrative arc of infidelity in which the spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) uses his Bond-like resources to terrorize his wife’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) lover (Bill Paxton). The subject of marital discord is not often a part of the action movie lexicon in this respect. Typically, as is the case with Die Hard (1988), the male protagonist’s marriage is saved by the end of the film in the same way the world is saved. Much of Cameron’s humor in dealing with infidelity recalls the oddball Alan Arkin comedies Chu Chu & The Philly Flash (1981) and The In-Laws (1979) in so far as the seriousness of the situation is undermined by the absurdity of the circumstances in which the situation has come to exist. The absurdity, in the case of True Lies, is the very fabric of the action movie genre itself.

Listing all of these various components and stylistic tactics may give the impression that Cameron’s film is not so much reflexive with a sense of humor, but rather an incoherent mess. This very well could have been the case if not for the unifying presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold Schwarzenegger even being in this film, as a kind of celebrity signifier, becomes a means by which the genre is parodied and its hubris analyzed while never losing its center, almost in a parallel fashion to Tim Allen’s role in Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest (1999).