True Lies is a bright, cotton candy confection of a film. It’s not James Cameron’s best work, but it has energy, enthusiasm, and tons of charm. You can’t take it seriously for even a minute, but who cares?
The action movie side of the plot—involving a terrorist plot by the “Crimson Jihad,” who are portrayed with the level of nuance and political savvy you’d expect from a mid-90s blockbuster—barely registers. This becomes more of a detriment in the film’s too-long third act, but early on, it works just fine as a reason for action sequences high-stakes run-ins.
The real plot, however, is the marriage between Harry (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis). Helen, a legal secretary with a secret itch for excitement, thinks that her husband has a dull-as-dirt job selling computer software. She can’t understand why he loves it, and she really can’t understand why he pours so much of his life into it.
Well, he does it because he’s secretly saving the world, of course. True Lies gives us spycraft that’s a colorful cross between James Bond and Mission: Impossible, with bonus silliness: it’s hard to top Harry tailing a target to the roof by riding a horse into an elevator. (“Say something!” a woman squashed into the corner hisses to her husband. Flustered, he sizes up the situation and can only come up with a sputtered, “That’s a … fine animal.”) Later, Harry scolds the horse for insufficient commitment to the job.
The tension between Harry and Helen comes to a head when Harry finds out—or thinks he finds out—that Helen is having an affair with Simon (a magnificently sleazy Bill Paxton). This is where the film dives headfirst into rom-com land: if you take everything that follows at face value, it’s appalling. Harry uses the resources of his job to track and terrorize Helen, convincing her that her life will be ruined if she refuse to play along. Yeah, it’s terrible. But it’s also screwball, a conceit that exists to set up action, farce, and rekindled flames. You say to-may-to, True Lies says sexy, marriage-restoring adventure … and in a movie that’s hardly committed to unflinching realism, emotional or otherwise, that honestly works just fine.
It helps that Curtis and Schwarzenegger have really good chemistry, and they’re both powerhouses of movie star charisma. Curtis is the standout of the two—really, this is her movie—but the whole cast is good.
Again, the last third—aside from a delightful epilogue—overstays its welcome. (And a child Eliza Dushku’s action scenes in it leave a sour taste in my mouth now that I know that she was molested the film’s stunt coordinator, making it even worse.) It also splits its characters up, which is a major mitsake. But by the time we get to Harry and Helen’s last tango, the cotton candy quality of the movie is restored, letting us end on a high note.
True Lies is streaming on Tubi.