THE NEW ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER epic, “True Lies,” is a summer popcorn picture, plain and simple. It’s not the sort of flick you’d spend time philosophizing about, lest your friends think you have nothing more portentous to discuss.
Here’s the rub: People are discussing “True Lies.” In fact, they’re arguing about it. Even within the Variety family, the sides are fiercely drawn — some loved the film, others disdained it, but everyone is adamant about their position. In the interest of full disclosure, let it be stated herewith that Brian Lowry, our able critic who reviewed the movie, didn’t care for it much. I liked it a lot.
It’s not unusual for people to disagree about a new film; what’s unusual is for a summer action film to stir up this sort of debate. What’s all the noise about?
THE PROBLEM SEEMS TO BE that “True Lies,” while devoid of intellectual pretensions, inadvertently hits a surprising number of hot buttons. James Cameron, the director, loves to design numbingly complex set pieces, but amidst all the mayhem, he also trips over some controversial issues of the day.
The violence issue. In designing what David Ansen of Newsweek described as a “gargantuan thrill machine,” Cameron cheerfully annihilates literally hundreds of people. At one point, the lovers kiss against the background of a billowing mushroom cloud without anyone fretting about nuclear fallout. This scene could be viewed as downright Kubrickian. Time’s Richard Corliss felt it was “a loud misfire.”
The politically correct issue. Cameron clearly doesn’t believe in the sort of pan-racial, multinational villains deployed on TV. His heavies consist of klutzy Arabs, all of whom need a bath and a shave. I thought the villains were a hoot. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times felt “a strain of crudeness and mean-spirited humiliation … runs through the film like a nasty virus.”
The women-are-equal-if-not-superior issue. “True Lies” is unusual among action pictures in that it mixes domestic comedy with the techno-stunts. The film was loosely based on a French comedy called “La Totale!” Playing Schwarzenegger’s wife, the immensely gifted Jamie Lee Curtis is conned, clobbered and humiliated and, as Time points out, screams even more than Fay Wray in “King Kong.” At one point, duped into playing a hooker, she performs a clumsy striptease for a “john” who turns out to be her husband. Again, Turan winces at the “painful humiliation” to which she is exposed, while Janet Maslin of the New York Times, acknowledging the scene’s “potential to seem unpleasantly exploitative,” notes that “Ms. Curtis is much too deft a comedian to let that happen, and her own enjoyment of the moment comes through so clearly that the audience can enjoy it too.”
THE HOLLYWOOD WASTES MONEY issue. Cameron, as Time points out, is a “daredevil director who goes skydiving without a chute.” He seems to revel in $ 100 million budgets. Today’s critics, however, tend to review budgets instead of movies, says Schwarzenegger, who feels that critics react as though it were their own money being lavished on the films. “Well, it’s not their money; it’s the studios’ money,” Schwarzenegger reminds us.
The movies-are-too-long issue. Variety’s Lowry points out that “True Lies” shares more similarities with “Last Action Hero” than it would care to admit — being “overlong, overproduced and overbudget.” Indeed, he has a point. Especially after the hemorrhoidal experience of viewing the three-hour “Wyatt Earp,” “True Lies,” at two hours, 21 minutes, seems prone to excess. Lowry would have made his cuts in the “comedic midsection that wears the audience down, sapping their energy.” While I happened to like the middle section, Lowry is right in asking what ever happened to the precept of telling a story with both discipline and economy?
The critics may argue back and forth, but as any distribution maven will tell you, summer action flicks tend to be critic-proof. The real question will be whether audiences argue as vehemently as the critics, and whether this will help the box office or scare people away.
As for me, I think it will help. In the end, “True Lies” is a helluva lot of fun. Besides, as Schwarzenegger reminds us, the $100 million is coming out of Rupert Murdoch’s budget, not mine.