Double Lives: James Cameron’s True Lies (1994)

It’s the 25th anniversary of a certain kickass action film that broke both windows and records back in 1994. True Lies was the first movie with a production budget of over $100 million and is one in a list of many epic Arnold Schwarzenegger crime stories, and in this one, Arnold is the good guy…mostly.

The story follows Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger), who, to his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a rather boring computer salesman who seems to take far too many business trips for any kind of salesman. Apparently, Helen is unaware that Harry could never simply be a “salesman.” In actual fact, Harry is a special agent fighting against terrorism in a task force called the Omega Sector. He is on a mission throughout the film to stop a man named Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik), who is the leader of a terrorist organisation that has smuggled nuclear weapons into the United States. However, both Harry and the audience are sidetracked from this quest. 

Looking back on the concept of an agent fighting against terrorism in 2019, it might be considered a touchy subject matter for a movie. Especially since the terrorists come from another country, which could cause some complaints and potentially be problematic. Of course, action films are still very popular today, but they are quite different in terms of diversity. In 1994, several major terrorist attacks and news stories we have experienced since had not come about yet, so it wasn’t considered to be as offensive as it might be called at this time. In fact, this comes to light when considering that True Lies almost had a sequel, only James Cameron lost his enthusiasm for the idea following the recent terrorist attacks.

Getting back to the plot, Harry and Helen are not on the greatest of terms when he visits her in her office one day and overhears her in conversation with another man, Simon (Bill Paxton). The irony is that Helen has been feeling incredibly underwhelmed because her husband is never around, and she also has the impression that he is not even capable of surprising her. Simon attempts to seduce Helen by telling her that he is a secret government agent and a dangerous man, while in reality, he is a car salesman. Helen seems to have jumped ship and ended up with the fake version of her husband. She isn’t immediately interested, as she wouldn’t dream of having an affair, but Simon seems to make her question herself. 

Harry sits at a desk in his uniform, and his coworker leans on the desk next to him

Another thing worth pointing out here is that it might be considered outdated (to some) to have a wife who needs a man to bring excitement into her life, and Helen is portrayed this way in the beginning. While it is still very much apparent in today’s society for a housewife figure to want more in her life, it might be criticised for being a rather “1950s” concept. It might also be argued that the film portrays a man with an average everyday job as boring, which might be a bit of a stereotype. But even if it is, it is still a real part of many marriages, so I think that the concept holds up.

Harry uses his powers and resources to kidnap Helen and put her into questioning. She, of course, believes that she is being taken because she is now involved with a secret spy of some kind, and she confesses to having a severe lack of excitement in her life. Harry decides to give her exactly what she wants and put her on a fake mission to seduce a powerful man and plant a bug for them. 

It’s very farfetched to think a government agent could use his resources to ultimately play a prank on his wife; that is often pointed out about True Lies. But it is all done comically, and it is hard to question the realistic factor of an action-comedy film.

True Lies is a remake of a French comedy called La Totale! which follows the same story, and in making True Lies, director James Cameron kept the comedic flair throughout the movie. In the quite hilarious scene where Helen attempts to seduce Harry (or mysterious powerful figure), Curtis accidentally stumbled during her striptease dance, and Cameron decided to keep this in the scene for comedic effect. You see Arnold jump up to help but rest again when she gets back up, which is even funnier when you realise it’s a genuine reaction. Apparently, a whole team of writers were brought in to bring comedy to Cameron’s script, but not much was used. I am, however, incredibly grateful for that mistake on the actress’s part, as it makes a good scene a classic one. I also find it hilarious that Harry is sitting right there, conveniently covered by the shade. Somehow we can see his face clearly, but she has no idea who he is!

A hand hides a recording device from Helen, who is standing next to a bed in her underwear

Anyway, during this scandalous evening, Aziz and his men break in and kidnap both Helen and Harry and keep them captured. The truth is revealed to Helen about Harry’s double life when he is under the influence of a truth-serum injection. The couple are kept on an island that contains a nuclear weapon set to detonate as Aziz and his men exit the island, but Harry, being the hero he is, saves the day. He saves Helen from captivity after she is taken by an accomplice of Aziz and gets them back to the city. Upon their return, Harry learns Aziz has taken his daughter and is immediately on another journey to save a life. Harry takes over a plane in true Arnold Schwarzenegger fashion and rescues his daughter—only she is hanging on to the front of the plane with Aziz trying to attack him from the other end. In a memorable scene, Harry manages to knock Aziz off the plane, but the latter is left hanging to one of its missiles. Harry grins and fires him directly into one of Aziz’s helicopters, following the classic line, “You’re fired!” Aziz and his men are killed instantly. 

I think this scene is one that will always be brilliant, 25 years later, or even 50. Action shots with catchy one-liners have always been cool, and they always will be. Not to sound biased, but when those scenes star Arnold Schwarzenegger, they will hold up for an eternity!

Aziz hangs from the plane's missile piloted by Harry, and his daughter Dana holds onto the pilot window

After a family reunion following the grand rescue, the film leaves us one year later with, again, a rather unrealistic outcome, but a happy one at that. Helen is now working for the Omega Sector with her husband, and they are on an undercover mission together. They are at an upscale party and come across Simon, the car salesman, up to his tricks with another woman. Harry and Helen find joy in messing with him and scare him away, before the movie ends with Harry and Helen performing the tango while their coworkers yell at them through earpieces to take themselves seriously. The movie ends this way, and the couple look incredible and entirely fulfilled in their lives. 

Like I said, it isn’t entirely realistic that Helen would be able to become an agent after that one incident, but it’s a movie, so who cares if it’s realistic, right? 

Writing this has taken me right back to seeing that movie for the first time years ago. It has always stood out amongst the classic Schwarzenegger action films, despite being often overlooked amongst some of his greatest hits, probably because it’s such a fun film! I think that the reason True Lies is still such a classic 25 years later is because of how memorable each scene is, its unique tone of an action picture with comedic flair. Jamie’s striptease is still talked about to this day; Curtis looks stunning and is brilliant at acting uncomfortable with herself, even though I’m pretty sure she knows she looks damn fine. And the line “You’re fired!” in my opinion, is just as memorable as “‘I’ll be back.” Arnold is known for those epic one-liners, and this one might be my favourite.

There’s another scene from this film that I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned yet—you have probably been waiting for it: the unforgettable “horse” scene! Whilst Harry is chasing Aziz through the mall, Aziz on a motorbike, Harry mounted on a horse, Harry rides the horse into the elevator, asking the others to “please press the button for the top floor.” The horse hits a lady in the face with its tail on the way up, which is hilarious because she is quite a snobby character. Aziz rides his motorbike off the roof of the building, landing in the pool of the building across the way, so Harry backs up, and he and the horse sprint towards the edge, before the horse shies away and knocks him off. Harry is left hanging on the edge of the building, and he asks the horse, “What the hell were you thinking? I had the guy, you let him get away!” Absolutely amazing! Nobody expects that in an action movie.

Harry is on a horse crammed into a glass elevator

You could probably argue that True Lies still holds up 25 years later because of the big names attached to it. Directed by James Cameron, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis? Isn’t that an instant classic? Maybe so, but I have hopes that if a film were to surface that was actually no good, it wouldn’t be automatically legendary because of those involved. True Lies is a very fun ride, with great acting and great writing. You’ll experience the fear and danger of an action-packed crime film with the lighthearted comedy side, while also becoming invested in the romantic story being played out by Harry and Helen. I really feel for Helen, because it’s common for housewives to become bored and crave excitement, or just hope for something different to do. This, while rather extreme, is the perfect circumstance to find yourself in, the kind of story you dream of. What if my husband turned out to be a spy for the government, and what if I met a dangerous and powerful man? It’s the kind of movie to live vicariously through, because you probably wouldn’t have much of a clue how to handle it happening to you in your real life! All of this is to say it’s a really fun movie.

I often bring up True Lies, and I’ve found it to be one of those films that people say, “Oh yeah, I saw that some years ago, I think I liked it.” Well, please, take this opportunity on the 25th anniversary of this incredible film to give it another watch. You will soon remember what you’ve been missing!

Written by Abbie Sears

Abbie is an author for 25YL from the United Kingdom. She has a passion for meditation and travel. She loves concerts, drumming, playing indie games and binge watching shows.

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