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True Lies spoils great action with bad story

Directed by James Cameron.
Written by James Cameron.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Bill Paxton, Art Malik, and Tia Carrere.
Loews Cheri.

By Scott Deskin
Associate Arts Editor

The new Arnold Schwarzenegger action film True Lies is a true test of his recently-challenged clout at the box office. After last year's Last Action Hero, which sank like a lead balloon after inflated expectations, everyone wants Schwarzenegger to bounce back with a resounding success. Schwarzenegger senses this too, which is probably why he chose James Cameron (of The Terminator and T2 fame) to get him back on track. As such, True Lies offers its audience a dazzling array of action, lowbrow farce, and awe-inspiring special effects. The problem with this film is that the underlying story is too weak to match the intensity of the film's action sequences and effects.

The film's title is a reminder of the several role reversals in the story, a warning that everything is not as it appears to be at first glance. Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) is a top-secret superspy for the Omega Sector, the "Last Line of Defense" in the realm of international security; Harry concentrates his efforts on foiling acts of nuclear terrorism. But, to his unsuspecting wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harry's just a boring computer salesman who seeks nothing more in life than his career and some domestic complacency. Neither seems to realize that they are imperfect halves of a whole, passive participants in a dead-end marriage. Helen yearns to break out of her timid shell as a secretary-housewife, and Harry just wants to be a good husband.

Sparks start to fly when Harry discovers that his wife may be having an affair. Simon (Bill Paxton) convinces Helen, through a series of "chance" encounters, that he is a spy and needs her assistance to help him complete his mission. With a slimy air of confidence, he seduces Helen into joining his fantasy world, just because it offers her a chance to escape from the boredom of her everyday life. Harry doesn't act so sympathetically to this imminent marital fling (especially after learning that Simon is taking credit for his exploits), so he intervenes and gives Helen a real adventure working for the agency - all just to add a little spice to the marriage.

The plot becomes increasingly ludicrous and complex: What more could one expect from an American film that has to outdistance the French film on which it was based (La Totale)? The story centers around Harry's battle of wits with an extremist terrorist faction and its leader Aziz (Art Malik), who proves as fearless of driving a motorcycle off a high-rise hotel onto an adjacent rooftop as when he is holding most of Florida hostage with a nuclear warhead. Harry's exploits with a beautiful art dealer named Juno (Tia Carrere) provide a momentary romantic diversion from Harry's mission, but she's just window dressing in an otherwise underdeveloped script.

Many of the action scenes are coated with tongue-in-cheek humor, but much of it is laid on too thick to be charming. In the best line in the movie, which continues Schwarzenegger's kinder-and-gentler image for the 1990s, Harry tells Helen that he has really killed people in his line of work: "Yeah; but they were all bad." On top of this, the audience is expected to believe that Harry Tasker's image identification with James Bond in the film's opening sequence does not imply that he isn't faithful to his loving wife: a better question from Helen would have been, "Have you ever cheated on me?" but the filmmakers chose to ignore that option.

These considerations aside, True Lies is everything one could want in a summer blockbuster. The cast seems comfortable with the outrageous demands of the plot, and Tom Arnold is a pleasant surprise as Tasker's sidekick and friend at the agency. The special effects in the film are first-rate. Whereas Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day focused on morphing effects for its biggest thrills, the thrill to be found in Cameron's latest effort is the seamlessness of the final product - one (or at least one's eyes) has a hard time doubting a Harrier jet hovering over the streets of Miami or one of the bridges in the Florida Keys getting blown to pieces by some heat-seeking missiles. For sheer visual impact, True Lies is a non-stop thrill ride, once it is set in motion.

In short, True Lies provokes and is typified by mixed feelings. It is equal parts French farce and American action picture, but it never really feels like a natural mix. Admittedly, most of the film's characters and situations never progress beyond the comic-book level, so it's hard to compare its comic levity with the apocalyptic vision of the Terminator films. So, True Lies is an entertaining and humorous display of effects and storytelling. It's too bad the story is little more than dumb fun.