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Image: 20th Century Studios

Film

True Lies: Schwarzenegger’s Secret Charm

By 1994, Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and persona were well known to moviegoers and the public. How could they not be? A former Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia champion, his film career began with tiny roles such as a random heavy with no speaking lines in The Long Goodbye (1973), as well as the lead in Hercules in New York (1970). Regardless of what the naysayers in the industry told him, he was determined to become an actor. As most know, the big break came with Conan the Barbarian in 1982. The Terminator in 1984 followed, marking the first collaboration with director James Cameron. He was off to the races, starring in a plethora of iconic 1980s movies like PredatorThe Running Man, and Twins

When his name comes up, many people associate him with the Terminator films. Why shouldn’t they? He starred in the 2 first and best entries. Predator is also brought up, as is Conan, sometimes Total Recall, but mostly Terminator and T2The common denominator in those films is the type of roles he played. For most of the early chapter in his career, he played incredibly lethal, no-nonsense action heroes. Quips were tossed occasionally. It wasn’t as if he always played machines, but no one thinks of Twins first and foremost when recalling the actor’s filmography. It isn’t as if he is a bad performer either.  He’s solid in his action movies, including Last Action Hero. But it was James Cameron, with whom he had worked twice already, who would unlock the best of Schwarzenegger in True Lies

The Cameron James Bond Film

True Lies’ opening sequence is essentially the director putting his stamp on a 007 adventure without truly making one. Special Omega Force agent Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) is in wintry Switzerland to infiltrate a private, high society dinner party where big money is exchanging wrong hands. His teammates Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold) and Faisil (Grant Heslov) are stationed in their high-tech van nearby, communicating with Harry via radio. Seeing as Harry has no invitation, he sneaks up to the mansion via under-ice scuba diving. Underneath the equipment, it is revealed he was wearing dinner attire all along, sending Goldfinger fans into sheer delight. 

Spy games
Credit: 20th Century Studios

This is only where the fun begins. From there Harry engages in a series of verbal jousting matches with the guests, particularly with Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere), performs some sneaky spy work, and of course escapes the party with a chaotic, explosive climax. It’s important to always leave a party with a bang. 

Schwarzenegger’s Secret Weapon

Having not seen True Lies in many years, and tasked with ranking the James Cameron films in July, a rewatch was imperative. Plenty of plot details were long forgotten, for example, what role Bill Paxton played. Revisiting this oft-celebrated entry in Cameron’s oeuvre, many of its endearing and less than enviable qualities were brought back to the fore (random, ill-defined Arab terrorists). 

What became clear among other things was how James Cameron successfully tapped into one of his star’s talents that few other directors had been able to before or have since. From the opening sequence to the film’s final frame, Schwarzenegger is charming and debonair. Consider the opening sequence during which he plays a sophisticated spy fluent in multiple languages and mingles with high society whilst on an infiltration mission. That’s a set-up fit for a James Bond-level actor, not the chap who played a barbarian king, a killing machine from the future, and a series of military commandos. 

Angry face
Credit: 20th Century Studios

Despite what reservations some might have about the Herculean Austrian with the iconic thick accent, the reality is he’s quite good! Arnold fans are quick to point out that their idol has done much more throughout his career than accept roles of robots and muscular action men. They’re correct, he has. Kindergarten CopMaggie, Batman and Robin, and The Last Stand are all examples of the Hollywood icon engaged in roles that asked something different of him. 

Going the Extra Yard

But what True Lies asks of him feels special. He must balance the action-hero persona with so many other poignant beats and emotions. It’s as if James Cameron recognized that there was even more potential to be tapped from an already highly successful star. In this movie he is a husband to Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis), a father to Dana (Eliza Dushku), a remarkable spy who can blow up any room with his fists or explosives, and, because he is a spy, switch personas on a dime. 

We keep going back to the opening scene in Switzerland because it’s the real eye opener the film has to offer. Save the recognizable accent which has stayed with him since arriving in the United States, Schwarzenegger is perfect as Harry Tasker the super spy. His repartee with Tia Carrere is exquisite in that classic Hollywood kind of way. He moves like a gentleman, looks like a gentleman and talks like one too. It’s as great an example as will ever exist of what a Bond film starring Arnold would have looked and sounded like. Frankly, not half bad. 

Schwarzenegger and Lee Curtis
Credit: 20th Century Studios

The stress over keeping his marriage together, his concerns over what habits his teenage daughter is adopting, all the while fighting evil are what make Harry Tasker such an engaging protagonist. When fearing that Helen may be cheating on him with a pick-up artist (Paxton), Schwarzenegger plays distraught and vexed with terrific conviction. Because the audience has seen how cool he is as an action hero, his domestic trials and tribulations hit home more effectively. How can someone so awesome as this guy get worked up about home life? Shouldn’t he have everything a decent American working man desires? The truth is, because of his profession, no, not at all. 

A Must-See Cameron and Schwarzenegger Flick

In the aforementioned rankings article, it was argued that True Lies is not a perfect film. Alas, a few elements keep it from reaching lofty heights of movie perfection. Apologies for repeating what was written in the list, but the stripper dance under duress Helen must go through simply feels wrong. Despite True Lies‘ flaws, the things it does well it executes with such bravado and glee that overall It’s next to impossible to outright dislike it. The action is appropriately bombastic (the bridge chase in the Florida Keys is fantastic), the supporting players are strong (even Tom Arnold. Wowzah!), and, at its centre, is a great performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

It’s not Academy Award-worthy. The Oscars rarely reward stars of action-adventure-comedies. The acting from its lead demonstrates that he had more tricks up his sleeve than uncommonly large biceps. From the suaveness, the comedy, and the romantic gestures, there isn’t a single false note. It’s unfortunate that the movie remains difficult to find on home video and streaming. The more time passes, the more True Lies risks becoming a forgotten Cameron-Schwarzenegger collaboration. That’s a shame because the film shows the greatness the two brought out in each other.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, we never knew you were capable of wooing us so.

-Edgar Chaput

Written By

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar Chaput has written and podcasted about pop culture since 2011. At first a blogger, then a contributor to Tilt's previous iteration (Sound on Sight), he now helps cover tv and film on a weekly basis. In addition to enjoying the Hollywood of yesteryear and martial arts movies, he is a devoted James Bond fan. English, French, and decent at faking Spanish, don't hesitate to poke him on Twitter (https://twitter.com/double_oh_Pop), Facebook or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/edchap14/).

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