'True Lies': Little truth, lotta thrills

July 15, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In "True Lies," Arnold Schwarzenegger is stirring, never shaken: James Bond with the bratwurst pecs of Mr. Universe, one of Herr Glock's devilish 9 mm Model 19s in a shoulder holster, and a quip feathery-light on his amused lips, who blithely sails through hell without cracking the shellac of mousse that holds his hair in place.

What compels this hoary '60s superagent cliche to our attention is the stunning dynamism with which it is delivered. Arnold is only Arnold, but a good director, such as James Cameron, is a smoke. Cameron did both "Terminators" and the second "Aliens" and he knows how to stage action better than anyone in the world with the slight exception of John Woo. But he's really not engaged at any level here except the technical. The film has the soulless but carefully engineered texture of a Summer Hit, which it will be, rather than a Real Movie, which it isn't. He's slumming. But boy, can he slum!

The plot, adopted from a much slighter French farce, is a flimsy platform by which to get from one action sequence to another. Arnold plays Harry Tasker, a suburban Washington computer salesman, who is solid, decent, evidently prosperous and, alas, rather boring, much to the disappointment of his wife Helen (Curtis). We are given to understand that such boredom extends to that marital demilitarized zone known as the bedroom.

But what Helen can't know is that Harry is actually the No. 1 operative for "The Omega Sector," a super-secret CIA offshoot that combats nuclear terrorism. We first meet him stepping out of a hole in the ice in a frogman's wet suit, which he sheds to reveal a dapper tux. He then slides with a lizard's grace into a glittering party in Switzerland. First rigging explosive distractions, he penetrates a computer network, drinks a glass of champagne, dances a tango, then shoots and body-surfs his way out and down the snowy slopes -- all with the wry detachment of an English poet holding forth on the art of the simile.

The party sequence is merely prelude. It sets Harry up in pursuit of a mad (but purely generic) Arabic terrorist named Aziz, played by Art Malik, who has come into possession of four Soviet warheads. He means to detonate them in America, because that's the sort of thing terrorists do (the portrait of Muslims is borderline offensive, by the way). To nab Malik, Harry must track him through the offices of the de rigueur femme fatale, an art importer played with icy elegance by Tia Carrere, who seems a little young for the part, though she dances a mean tango.

One of the best gags is almost totally irrelevant to the story. Harry turns the tables on assassins in Georgetown in a men's room shootout that deconstructs the world into Swiss Cheese. He ends up chasing the motorcycle-mounted Aziz through Washington on a police officer's horse, through streets, hotel lobbies and ultimately up elevators and onto rooftops. It's one of those astonishing, completely unbelievable but mesmerizing set pieces at which Cameron excels, its unlikelihood campily playing off its sheer sense of dazzlement. You wonder, how can he top this? But he always does.

Then Cameron (who also wrote) stops the film and turns it into a somewhat bizarrely configured Hepburn-Tracy number. The frustrated Curtis becomes the object d'amour of a sleazy used car salesman (Bill Paxton) whose method of seduction is to tell his targets he's a secret agent; that, in fact, he's Harry! But Harry, who has no appreciation for irony, finds out about it and utilizes the full force of his agency to squash the affair and the little man. Then, ickily, he further twists his power to play an elaborate and extremely sadistic prank on his poor wife, blackmailing her (through a secret guise) into taking on the role and performing some of the degrading acts of a prostitute. Jim, it's not very '90s! What it is, is very kinky stuff. But this gambit provides the structure for what follows: Harry and Helen, suddenly kidnapped by the terrorists, must save the world. We realize, however, that something much more than the deaths of millions of people is at stake: their marriage.

Then Cameron notices it's been nine minutes since anything exploded, and off we go again.

Tom Arnold does a nice job as Arnold's mild sidekick, but the true breakout performance is turned in by a Marine Harrier jump jet. This aircraft, much beloved by our leathernecks for its ability to stop on a dime and set down in a parking lot like a helicopter, is commandeered by Arnold (who just happens to know how to fly it) and hauls ash to Miami to deal with the terrorists who, A) have an atom bomb, and B) have his daughter. Now, time for some big-time critic's insight: What a cool plane! Where can I get mine?

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