LIGHTS! CAMERON! ACTION!

Hooray for Hollywood, I guess. From what other source can one see Jamie Lee Curtis and Tia Carrere, both in slinky evening wear, having a yowling catfight in the back seat of a black limousine with a dead driver speeding toward a blown-up bridge while a helicopter descends from above? This sort of thing hits the spot every once in a while, and James Cameron, writer-director of True Lies, which contains the scene, knows how to dish it out. He doesn't always know when to quit, but he certainly can't be accused of scanting us.

More than ten years ago, I sat with a friend in an otherwise empty theatre, expecting to kill a couple of hours sneering at a low-budget horror effort titled Piranha II: The Spawning. The film, Cameron's feature debut, ended up surprising us--while far from a lost masterpiece, it was clearly the work of a witty, talented action director doing his best with silly material and no money. Two or three years later, Cameron made The Terminator, a fine, drum-tight B picture about an inexorable killer robot from the future (Arnold Schwarzenegger) stalking a woman from the present.

The degree of silliness in Cameron's films hasn't lessened all that much in the years since Piranha II, but since the smashing success of The Terminator in 1984, the director's had money to burn. And following a reliable Hollywood formula for success, burn it he has. It's doubtful that many real-life Third World revolutions can boast as many explosions as any one of Cameron's films, which include Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. True to form, True Lies opens with an exploding tool shed, and before the end, we're shown a lover's kiss lighted by the glare of a nuclear blast in the distance. These detonations occur in the course of the hero's pursuit of the Middle Eastern terrorist villain, but all of this is really just a disproportionately extravagant subplot. True Lies is, at heart, a domestic farce--the hero (Schwarzenegger) is a counterterrorist operative for a government agency so supersecret that his own wife (Curtis) thinks he's just a milquetoast businessman. She loves him, but she's becoming restless, and she's on the verge of falling prey to a small-time seducer (Bill Paxton) who picks up housewives by convincing them that he's a secret agent. Realizing that he's been neglecting her, and that she needs to feel some excitement in her life, Arnie continues Paxton's game. With the help of his buddies (principally, the amusing Tom Arnold), he sets up circumstances that make Curtis believe she's caught up in an international intrigue. The joke is that, to Arnie's surprise and slight discomfort, the little woman shows a startling aptitude for spying.

Not bad. If Cameron had had the courage of his comedic convictions--and, perhaps, if Arnie hadn't bombed last year by playing action-movie gimmicks for laughs in Last Action Hero--True Lies could have been a classic parody. Sadly, just at the moment when the plot has been wound up tight and the complications are about to start unraveling, it's interrupted by that bang-you're-dead subplot, and never really taken up again. A lot of the film's potential for originality is thus lost. The last quarter of True Lies has fights, chases and shoot-outs that are as spectacular, and as grandly staged, as they come, and a good, subtly funny performance by Art Malik as the terrorist. Yet nothing in this violent, "serious" side of the movie turns the audience on like the comic main plot.

Besides, for all of Cameron's skill, the violent action in True Lies is of a sort that's worn out by overuse in the 80s. Building a film's action around the paramilitary racking up of a huge body count is a method that could be shelved for a long time without any great loss to the world. There are action pictures that transcend reactionary politics; they aren't common, but they're a breath of fresh air when they come along. Die Hard was one, even though it involved the extermination of a series of bad guys, because the film very shrewdly made the slaughtered heavies 1) heterogeneous (almost every race and ethnicity was represented among them) and 2) apolitical (the heavies were, in the end, just robbers hiding behind the guise of terrorists). The villains in True Lies are sincerely political terrorists, and while this doesn't make them sympathetic, it does pull the film too close to the miseries of the real world. This summer's best action film so far, Speed, in which a mad bomber (the joyously hammy Dennis Hopper) rigs a bus to blow up if it falls below 50 mph, is, even more than Die Hard, another such blessedly apolitical movie. It has one agenda only--keep the bus moving. This is why it gets us, particularly those of us who are urbanites, where we live. On a subconscious level, this is how many city dwellers (and not just city dwellers, of course) feel every day--that there's no room to slow down. Within the framework of constant and rapid motion, there may be room to improvise, make mistakes, change plans, but if you slow down, you have, so to speak, blown it. True Lies, in spite of its domestic theme, has no such subtext to its action.

Schwarzenegger and Curtis are both likable performers--both, basically, are gifted as comics--and they do strong work here, especially considering that they're both physically wrong for their roles. To complete its conception, True Lies called for stars who were attractive but also believable as twerpy suburbanites--maybe Charles Grodin and Bonnie Bedelia, but not Thor the Thunder God and Diana the Huntress.

I don't mean to be too hard on True Lies (not that I or any other critic could hurt the film commercially if we tried). I enjoyed it. It's solid, bang-for-your-buck summer entertainment, like a fireworks show (it is a fireworks show, come to think of it). But it's significantly watered down from the film it could have been by the cash register in Cameron's soul that dictated what kind of movie it had to be, and how gargantuan it had to be. The film does share something with Speed: a flaw. As with Speed's final subway sequence, Cameron pushes his luck, trying to give us one more big run for our money after that nuclear explosion--a confrontation between Arnie and the terrorist (on the fuselage of a Harrier jet in midflight!). It's simply a climax too many. The mushroom cloud has tapped the movie's (and our) energies. True Lies is about as phallic a movie as one could name, so I don't think it's an inapt metaphor to say that by this final midair grapple, it's lost its erection.

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