** spoiler alert **
The PlotOn the surface, True Lies is a Tom Clancy-like action film. It centers around Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger), a member of an elite agency charged with protecting the world from terrorists. Harry is the best of the best and is capable of an amazing number of borderline-impossible physical tasks. He’s James Bond on steroids. His partner Gib (Tom Arnold) is the typical sidekick one finds in these stories, who does all the leg work to allow Harry to be the hero. Together they need to stop an Islamic terrorist who has gotten his hands on two nuclear bombs.
At its core, True Lies is a romantic comedy about the relationship between Harry and his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis). Harry cannot tell Helen what he does for a living, so he pretends to be a boring computer salesman. He is so dull that Helen has become bored and finds herself enticed into considering an affair. . . sort of. . . with “Simon” (Bill Paxton), a sleazy used car salesman who pretends to be a spy to trick Curtis into coming to his home. Harry discovers this and abuses his power with the agency to uncover what is going on and then to make an attempt to win back Helen. But things go awry as his day job stumbles upon the game he is playing with his wife. Soon, Helen learns the truth and the rest of the film is about them resurrecting their relationship in light of the lies Harry had been telling. Oh, and they need to stop Miami from going up in smoke and save their daughter.
What Drives This FilmTrue Lies should be a template for how to make an effective action film. First, you have all the usual bells and whistles – exotic locations, amazing stunts, fantastic effects, and huge stakes between the bad guys and the good guys. Indeed, the explosion of the bridge is perhaps one of the best effects/scenes in action movie history, and the fight scenes are executed brilliantly. But what sets this film apart is not the action scenes, it’s what happens between the action scenes.
Secondly, the entire subplot between Harry, Helen and “Simon” gives this film heart. Name another action film that takes forty minutes out of its plot to do something that isn’t related to the bad guy’s scheme? There isn’t one because that rarely works. But it works here because this subplot is brilliantly woven into the main plot because of the ironic coincidence of “Simon” pretending to be a spy while Harry is pretending not to be a spy and because of the way it pulls Helen into Harry’s real life. It also smartly lets the plot develop without the filmmaker needing to show every aspect of the bad guy’s plan. Instead, the bad guy’s plan advances while you are watching the “Simon” story and you pick up right at the exciting parts.
True Lies is a film that blew me away the first time I saw it, and it’s proven to have amazing staying power. It’s also a film that just doesn’t grow old. And the reason for that is that this film focuses on the relationships of the characters, not on the plot. They need to make more movies like this.