6 reasons why TRUE LIES is the BEST ACTION comedy of all time
True Lies, the sixth feature film by James Cameron, had the misfortune of being made between the Avatar creator’s two mega-hits, i.e. right after the fantastic Terminator 2: Judgment Day and just before the award- and money-sprinkled Titanic, titles that were talked about a lot in the following years, drowning out the existence of Harry Tasker’s marital and terrorist adventures, which were a capital variation on James Bond’s adventures. True Lies, which with a budget of $115 million (it was the most expensive production until the release of Waterworld a year later) collected a pretty good 380 million in ticket revenue, didn’t resonate as much or get the recognition it should have. Even in the context of Cameron’s best achievements, this is a title that is relatively rarely mentioned. Today it’s even a somewhat forgotten film, and it’s other great productions from 1994, such as Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Speed, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber, among others, that have embedded themselves much more firmly in the minds of audiences. I know that the action-comedy with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis has a solid 7.3/10 on IMDb, while on Rotten Tomatoes it has a correct 70% with critics and 76% with viewers, but…
This epic action movie despite nearly 30 (!) years on its neck visually holding an ultra-high level to this day deserves far more. In my humble opinion, it’s downright scandalous that this spy comedy doesn’t sit in the TOP 250 best films of all time on IMDb and that it didn’t get a certificate of freshness from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Full of bitterness, I invite you to read my six arguments why True Lies is the best action comedy of all time, which of course you don’t have to agree with. And maybe someone from the younger generation, unfamiliar with the adventures of Harry Tasker, will reach for this cinematic romp from 3 decades ago, only to be surprised that such a film, bitten by the teeth of time, can boldly, like other works of Cameron (well, maybe except Terminator), compete in terms of visual mastery with today’s blockbusters slammed on a computer. At the same time, I invite you to my older articles in a very similar style, where I seemingly prove this thing: 5 REASONS why PREDATOR is the most MANLY movie of all time, and 8 reasons why EVERYONE loves DIE HARD.
Reason 1: Arnold's best acting performance
James Cameron muses “what I’m good at is working with actors…and then editing their performances to get the absolute best version of a scene and sharing it with the audience. It’s an amazing process. Sometimes you think it won’t work when you start, and then the characters come to life.” James Cameron likes and sticks with his actors, often collaborating with them on several separate projects. This was the case, for example, with Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Kate Winslet or even the lesser-known Jenette Goldstein – three times in front of Cameron’s camera. And so was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who for a few nice years even seemed to be acting for one of the best directors ever. It is to the creator of Avatar that Austrian Oak owes his most famous creation – Terminator T800 – and the immortal oneliner “I’ll be back” associated with it to the grave. Personally, I think Schwarzenegger played his three best roles of his career under the tutelage of master Cameron, you can see the director has a good hand in guiding his actors and even from the oak tree he knew how to wring out acting of a pretty high order. After all, the roles of a lifetime were played by the creator of Titanic, for example, Michael Biehn in Aliens and Terminator, Linda Hamilton in Terminators, or Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies is, to say the least, fantastic both in terms of the physicality and dexterity (of course, often supported by stuntmen) of the action scenes, because for this type of cinema Arnold was simply born, as well as the scenes with a comedic background, giving a performance that is natural and casual in the way he plays, much better than in comedies as Twins, Kindergarten Cop or Junior.
Whether Arnold snaps someone’s neck, sets fire to a terrorist’s whorehouse, makes them mince with Harrier’s deck cannon, or finally sensually strokes Jamie Lee Curtis with a rose, dances a graceful tango or confesses to his wife that he’s a spy and not a boring computer salesman, the actor and former bodybuilder in one remains believable in the role and is simply, what can I say, delicious to watch in True Lies. Interestingly, Arnold’s biggest challenge while working on True Lies was not the action scenes, but… the aforementioned tango, which he was supposed to dance in the prologue with Tia Carrere. Apparently, the ambitious actor prepared for this number for several months, wanting to come out on screen no worse than Al Pacino dancing the same dance in Scent of a Woman. It used to be said in the context of Arnold’s great performances in Terminators that the role of a small-minded cyborg without facial expressions was created perfectly for his talent, meanwhile the former Conan in True Lies showed a whole range of emotions, giving, in my opinion, his best acting performance of his career. Without Cameron’s supervision, he failed to even rub shoulders with this level in subsequent years. Arnold himself said of his role in True Lies that it was simply meant for him.
Reason 2: A capably written and acted female character
James Cameron knows how to script, as he has proven by writing scripts for all (not you, Piranha II) of his films, plus more for Rambo 2 and for his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow for Strange Days. What’s more, the Aliens creator knows how to write full-blooded, believable characters of strong and tough women, who are at the same time light miles away from the stereotype of the so-called damsel in distress, and indeed often men rescued from distress. Linda Hamilton in Terminators evolves from a filigree girl next door into a fit as a machine fighter to save the future, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens kicks the abdomen of the head of the pack, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss definitely doesn’t give a damn about a host of tough guys, and brave warrior Zoë Saldana in Avatar introduces a man to the secrets of his race, teaching him the way to survive and live on Pandora. I don’t mention Kate Winslet from Titanic, because we’re in action cinema here, not My heart will go on. Also fitting into the pattern of strong women in Cameron’s cinema, though in a less obvious way than her female colleagues, is Helen Tasker played in True Lies by Jamie Lee Curtis (2022 Oscar winner for best supporting actress for Everything Everywhere All at Once), perfectly balancing her character’s modesty, humor, sex appeal and more serious tones. This time we have to deal with the metamorphosis of a jaded housewife first into a sex bomb – a great “transformation” scene in a hotel corridor – and then with her discovering within herself reserves of strength, charisma and the will to fight for her husband and marriage amidst wheezing bullets and to the accompaniment of a thermonuclear explosion.
The transformation of our heroine is first felt on himself by her husband Harry-Arnold, who, having admitted to being a spy, gets a juicy punch in the nose from his spouse. Then the spanking goes to the terrorists, whose ranks Helen somewhat accidentally thins with a firearm thrown down the stairs. The last one to get punched in the mouth is Juno Skinner, first with a slap with a diamond ring turned inside her hand, and finally on the head with a champagne bottle. This is how attempts to hit on someone’s husband in Cameron’s film end. Eventually Jamie Lee Curtis ends up in the drawer of the aforementioned damsel in distress for a while, when Arnold saves her from falling in a limousine falling off a broken bridge; after all, it’s a movie with Schwarzenegger, and he has to save someone or he’ll suffocate. Finally, the woman, who has discovered strength in herself and regained confidence in her own attractiveness, plunges into the powerful arms of her rediscovered spy-turned-husband in a torn shirt revealing awesome biceps, to make a romantic kiss with him with a nuclear explosion in the background. Cameron had wanted to work with Jamie Lee Curtis ever since he saw her on screen in his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow’s film Blue Steel; however, Arnold initially didn’t see her as his screen wife. He changed his mind almost from the first day of shooting, and the on-screen chemistry and affection between A Fish Called Wanda and him is perfectly evident on screen, especially in the film’s second act. Jamie Lee Curtis recalls the set of True Lies as her most amazing experience in her career.
Reason 3: The truly sensational soundtrack
Brad Fiedel initially created music for television (including Bunker with Anthony Hopkins), then for modest cinema productions (The Accused with Jodie Foster), until he met James Cameron, who changed his professional life forever. The True Lies creator, having probably seen the aforementioned Bunker with its gloomy and dark electronic soundtrack (sounding, by the way, like a preliminary sketch of the music for The Terminator – I watched the film yesterday and I know what I heard!), invited Fiedel to work with him, and so the then little-known composer wrote the iconic Terminator leitmotif and the entire great soundtrack for it, and later composed the brilliant soundtrack for the sequel, already going down in the annals of film music with these two titles alone. For the latter work, by the way, he undoubtedly deserved at least an Oscar nomination, but unfortunately Fiedel, composing mainly electronic music – sometimes quite experimental in sound – for Terminators, used mainly synthesizers, and this, according to Academy regulations, prevented a nomination. Brad Fiedel, of course, also composed the soundtrack for True Lies, discussed here, already making considerable use of the capabilities of a traditional orchestra, after which… he ended his career as a film music composer almost overnight. As he stated in an interview he gave to Polish film music expert Lukasz Waligorski, among other things, he began to be weighed down by the decreasing creative freedom restricted by the big studios. From the same interview comes Fiedel’s recollection of working on the soundtrack for True Lies, when he collaborated with James Cameron for the third and final time:
“It was something important for us to let the audience know from the first bars that even though this is another film by Jim, Arnold and myself, it is completely different from the previous ones. Great entertainment, not too dark. I got tired a lot at the beginning of the film, where Arnold was dancing, or later when he was running down the mountain in the snow. Of course, already the use of a large orchestra distinguished this work [from Terminators]. Looking for ways to support the action and suspense while maintaining that comedic spark was my main challenge. I had a great time on this project.” As much as I love the entire film True Lies, I have an identical awe for the film’s music, energetic and/or uplifting when it needs to kick up a stove, somewhat nostalgic at equally appropriate moments, light in tone when accompanying humorous scenes. My absolute favorite, aside from the great theme, remains the musical illustration for the bathroom brawl. Unfortunately, many of the tracks composed for True Lies by Fiedel will not be heard on the official soundtrack (this one contains several songs used in the film plus only a few of the composer’s tracks), including the very bombastic composition accompanying Arnold’s struggle in the restroom (hmm that sounds weird) with the terrorists (better now). It’s a pity that Brad Fiedel, who created such original sounds as those illustrating both Terminator and True Lies, has put his career on hold and is now engaged in… running a surf marina.
Reason 4: Spectacular action scenes
“The King of the World” in True Lies soared to the heights of his talent when it comes to executing action scenes like the world has never seen, with a kill count of 90 bad guys. Today, in the age of serialized popcorn cinema, especially that of Marvel or the DCU, which is slowly getting overrun by everyone, I long for such creative shootouts or exchanges of blows as from True Lies. The kind that you watch again and again until you tear down the once VHS cassette, now Blu-Ray discs, and that you REMEMBER AFTER THE YEARS, not forget with the appearance of the end credits. Nowadays, probably only the Mission: Impossible series honors the tradition of ingenuity and innovation in the field of action scenes worth remembering (take a peek at my article TOP 10 actions in the series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE). A foretaste of God’s knack for shooting dynamically edited shootouts was given to us by the creator of The Abyss as early as in the first Terminator during the exchange of gunfire between the Terminator and Kyle Reese at the Technoir Club; it is, by the way, my favorite action scene of all the Terminators. Such a bathroom battle from True Lies, with Russell Carpenter’s (Oscar 1998 for Titanic cinematography, we’ll currently be able to admire his work on Avatar 2: The Way of Water) stunt extraordinaire and general demolition, which took as long as 5 days to shoot, is one of the best shoot-outs in the industry. Interestingly, one of the terrorists there is dressed almost identically to Arnold in the first Terminator.
There are also memorable moments such as the shooting in the snow from the prologue, the conquest of a Ak47 lying on a plank directly into one’s hands or, finally, the totally massively spectacular sequence with the Harriers knocking down the bridge, the subsequent clumsy takeoff of the Tasker and the dramatic rescue of the daughter on high – the Harriers are devoted to the entire last paragraph of this article, so we’ll return to these magnificent machines at the service of the master of cinema shortly. At times it’s hard to believe that the spectacular True Lies, with action scenes behind which the fickle John Wick could at most carry a backpack, has its origin in the 1991 French chamber comedy La Totale! from which, by the way, in addition to the initial idea, Cameron takes almost alive quite a few scenes (including a rifle falling down the stairs) and plot solutions. Arnold was introduced to the film by his brother-in-law Robert Shriver, and Cameron was introduced to Arnold by Arnold, who liked the character of a secret agent hiding his identity from his wife. Cameron made use of the story, reworking the base script into a major cinematic spectacle, adding from himself most notably…. Harriers! True Lies is still Arnold’s prime time and his oneliners, it’s here that Harry Tasker sums up the life of terrorist Aziz (the excellent Art Malik) and his colleagues, whom he’s about to fly to meet, with a hilarious “You’re fired” uttered to the bad guy just before he’s launched on a rocket in the film’s spectacular finale. The action on the hovering airship will be repeated by Cameron with minor changes to the use of the rocket in Avatar, filmed 15 years later.
Reason 5: Humor!
With positive humor, situational jokes, verbal jokes and so-called comedy of errors True Lies stands, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Tom Arnold acting duo is responsible for much of it (the role of Gibb was reportedly turned down by Joe Pesci himself). The men, like the rest of the well-matched cast, got along splendidly on the set. The spectacular, well-executed action scenes, which quite often end with the death of another, and another, and another terrorist, are interspersed with humor that hits the mark, often with a rather black tinge. Satisfyingly funny is the death of one terrorist inflicted on him by another terrorist, who did not think he was too close to his fellow terrorist with his bazooka. A pelican perched on the hood of the bad guys’ car also guarantees a smile on our face, as does the quick focus adjustment of the binoculars when Arnold in Harrier suddenly grows up in front of them. Or the disarming “Batter Aziz” when the panicked camera operator (let’s not kid ourselves, he’s a terrorist, too) runs out of battery in the camera at the crucial moment of an elated Aziz’s lofty speech. On top of that, the aforementioned Aziz landing with a big bang with his jewels on the Harrier’s vertical stabilizer is a full-on joke, though not necessarily for Aziz, who from that moment until his explosive encounter with his fellow pilots, that is, for a good minute, was unlikely to become a father.
Also worth mentioning, among other things, is the hilarious shot in which Gibb, hidden (for lack of another curtain at hand) behind a post, is shot with a rifle by Aziz, or the elderly gentleman sitting on the loo while a total demolition of the room by Arnold and the bad guys he’s cashing in on continues in the bathroom. And then there’s the whole brilliant plot and comfortingly comical motif with fake agent Simon (the irrepressible Bill Paxton plays here… a mirror image of Harry Tasker, since he’s a salesman pretending to be a spy) hitting on Helen. The moment when Harry fantasizes about Simon getting his stupid snout blown off is by far one of the funniest in the entire film. For dessert, there are slightly over-the-top, but still conventionally relevant scenes, like the one with Harry’s idiotic attempt to jump from building to building on horseback (fortunately, the horse turns out to be smarter) or the Mac-10 machine gun falling down the stairs and knocking down a whole host of terrorists by accident… This and a host of other comedic gems, even the totally over-the-top and unrealistic ones, are a testament to Cameron’s talent for creating quality humor. The film provides a rollercoaster of action thrills alternating with tons of comedy, which is still as good to watch, listen to and experience as it was in 1994, when this full-blooded, high-octane masterpiece of comedy action cinema premiered.
Reason 6: And last but not least... HARRIERS!
And last but not least, that is, the vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (to be precise, the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier of Marine Attack Squadron 223 nickname “Bulldog”), which the US Navy, along with its pilots, lent for the use of the filmmakers for a modest $100,000. James Cameron unquestionably has a nut for technology and machines with a shape and way of moving identical to the famous Harrier (by the way I had the opportunity to see this marvel in hover at the Air Show in Radom a many years ago – unforgettable impressions!). After all, it was none other than the master of action cinema and king of the world himself in one, who single-handedly conceived and drew the concept of, among other things, the flying Skynet assault vehicles we could admire in the prologues of both Terminators, or the drop shuttle from Aliens; twin vehicles also appeared in the most profitable (you don’t, Avengers: Endgame) film of all time, namely Avatar. But it was in True Lies, which, next to Titanic, is the only Cameron film that does not represent the SF genre, that we were able to admire actually existing vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, which owe their amazing properties to the variable angle of the engines’ exhaust nozzles, rather than to the creators’ imagination. To say that Cameron exploited the visual-technological potential of the Harriers borrowed by the Navy is to say nothing. The spectacular rocket firing of the bridge pillars, Harry’s subsequent struggle at the controls of one of the Harriers to get away from the ground by crashing into a police car, and the entire final battle of Harrier vs. terrorists at altitude are the crème de la crème of True Lies.
Real machines were used on the set during the bridge phase and partially during the Tasker’s takeoff, and the fun the entire film crew had shooting these very noisy machines can even be seen from the beaming faces of the actors. In the shot when the Harriers appear to us for the first time, you can clearly see with what enthusiasm Tom Arnold (the film’s Agent Gibb) reacted to their flight, who, additionally, seeing that Arnold, busy playing the agent involved in the action, almost misses the show, pats him on the shoulder to make him look away and look at the Harriers zipping below the helicopter (which they were in). In the scene of the havoc wreaking Arnold attempting to lift the Harrier into flight with as much grace as possible, it’s clear that he’s actually the one at the controls of this beautiful machine, thanks to Cameron’s ingenuity in juggling close-ups of Arnold in the cabin with the machine really taking flight. The sequence is even, or even especially today, in the age of ubiquitous CGI fixing of everything, electrifyingly impressive. Harrier’s aerial skirmish with the terrorists is already a work in progress on a 1 : 1 scale dummy of Harrier filmed on the largest ever moving green screen with a 180-degree field of view. It was for this breathtaking aerial sequence that the Digital Domain crew (the company founded by James Cameron and Stan Winston), earned an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects, valiantly competing with Chuck Russell’s Mask and ultimately losing the competition to Forrest Gump.