True Lies (1994)
Directed by James Cameron

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* *

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Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a spy, although his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) is unaware of his occupation When she does learn what her husband's real job is, however, she becomes involved in the complex plot involving stolen art and terrorists he is investigating.

As an action film, James Cameron's True Lies can be entertaining, but, more often than not, it is tiresome or offensive.

The director clearly intended that True Lies should arouse in the moviegoer a sense of its protagonists' heroism, and the action set pieces devised to elicit such reactions are all well done and impressive technically. Any sense of heroism is, however, undermined when the viewer reflects upon the film's inconsistencies and some of its more dubious elements.

The protagonists of True Lies, Harry and Helen Tasker, are light haired Caucasians. The villains, male and female, to match Schwarzenegger and Curtis, are black haired Arabs and a black haired Asian, respectively. The contrast between these characters is reminiscent of that between characters found in many old Westerns in which a hero in white is matched with a villain in black. While there is nothing innately wrong with pairing heroes who happen to be Caucasian with villains who are not, given the other qualities of this film, I suspect that an attempt is being made here to play on possible audience prejudices. The light skinned people are identified as good and the dark complected as evil and threatening.

Harry Tasker's treatment of his wife is also frequently disturbing. His behavior towards her in the first half of the film is frankly repugnant, vicious, and frightening, but it is often presented in a humorous manner. The wife's reactions to her husband's behavior are even more shocking. Actions that would constitute grounds for divorce for most persons trouble her only briefly, and actually seem to stimulate her sexually. I would have thought most women would be inclined to take out a restraining order against anyone who did even a fraction of what he does.

Helen is hardly the only character whose suffering is played for amusement, however. For instance, at one point early in the film, Curtis' character, neglected by her husband, thinks about taking a lover and even visits another man's house. This man, Simon (Bill Paxton), is abusively treated by both the protagonist and his wife in later sections of the film, and his discomfort is clearly meant to amuse the viewer.

As mean spirited as is Cameron's treatment of Simon, whose embarrassment and degradation are presented as though they were funny, the director's treatment of his villains is even less merciful. The movie revels in their almost invariably horrible and painful deaths. Such depictions, by wallowing in evocations of some nasty appreciation of discomfort, humiliation, and cruelty, are not humorous or engaging, however, but both troubling and distracting.

In addition to these elements, which render a character, Schwarzenegger's, intended as a hero into a villain, there are inconsistencies and contrivances within the movie that may bother viewers attentive to such details. For example, Paxton's character resides in the US at the beginning of the film but, at the end, has moved to Europe to become a waiter. He does so, apparently, for the sole purpose of giving the protagonists an opportunity to humiliate him.

If the faults of the film can be overlooked, True Lies does provide some impressive action sequences and can be enjoyed for such elements. It is also, however, nonsensical and offensive.

Review by Keith Allen

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