Shopping for a superhero this summer? Give poor Arnold Schwarzenegger another chance. That spell of self-doubt that plagued him last year, exemplified by a bomb called The Last Action Hero, now appears to be over, and Arnold is up to his old tricks in True Lies. Most of them, anyway.
This is not to say that the man hasn't expanded and enriched his screen persona. Because he has. For one thing, he's better than ever at sticking tongue in cheek at the same time that he's snapping a bad guy's neck. For another, he's still not afraid to look bewildered. Perhaps he is bewildered--astonished, even, that a former slab of muscle like himself has become one of the world's most popular movie stars, that he married into the Kennedy clan, that he can now afford suits that fit.
Hey, it didn't happen for Lou Ferrigno.
True Lies may be the ultimate Schwarzenegger action picture, because it kicks serious ass while taking itself even less seriously than its predecessors. As always, there's plenty of shooting. Hundreds of vehicles explode. And most of the world's helicopters are flying overhead. But there's something else here, too: a megadose of Arnie's Irony.
To get things off on the right foot, his old pal James Cameron, who gave the world Aliens and the Terminator movies, has fashioned a clever, unexpectedly funny screenplay that's a change-up on the old Walter Mitty fantasies. When we first see Harry Tasker, the Schwarzenegger character, he's popping out of a frozen pond on a heavily guarded compound in Switzerland. He strips off his wet suit to reveal a perfectly pressed tuxedo, pats cologne onto both cheeks and strolls into the ballroom. There he suavely insinuates himself in four languages, performs a steamy tango with a handy beauty, then routs a band of Arab terrorists. Naturally, he blows some stuff up on the way out.
All in a day's work for the movies' latest super- spy, right? Except that Harry doesn't bed the girl. Instead, this most secret of secret agents must now tiptoe into his own house back in Washington and be careful not to wake his unsuspecting wife. Because Harry Tasker is James Bond with mortgage payments. A guy who's always late for dinner because he's out rounding up nuclear blackmailers.
This business might have boiled down to one overworked joke, but Cameron and Schwarzenegger parlay it into a rich comic vein. There's always a sublime comic tension between Harry's smooth professional exploits and the unholy chaos of his domestic life. Father may know best, but only on the road. At the dinner table, he's another dull computer salesman slopping mashed potatoes onto his plate and wondering why his sullen teenage daughter (Eliza Dushku) will barely speak to him.
Happily, there's a slightly absurd air to even the movie's most elaborate heroics, but it never descends into the kind of raw self-parody that ruined Action Hero. Harry commandeers a police horse to chase a villain on a motorcycle, and the four of them wind up stuffed comically into a pair of glass elevators. At the controls of a Harrier jet, Harry keeps bumping into buildings and police cars while trying to take off. You can imagine him ordering the wrong wine with fish, and when called upon to light up a Lucky, he gags. Still, he always gets the job done.
Obviously, this is not the first time farce has been married to derring-do, but it's one of the most successful such unions. Arnie wrecks things and nails swarthy villains to his heart's content, and the audience oohs and ahs. But when the hero stubs his toe, we like that, too. He's never quite like the rest of us--too many biceps and daring stunts for that and too much unflappable demeanor. But for a while, at least, he's helpless in the face of a family in crisis and a wife who wants a little excitement in life.
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All of this would work well enough if only Schwarzenegger were in charge, but Harry's double life becomes doubly enjoyable with the addition of Jamie Lee Curtis. As Harry's suburban wife, Helen, Curtis secretes herself behind a pair of tortoise-shell glasses and within a matronly wool suit. But she has another self fighting to break free, too, and upon that notion the central plot spins. Throw in the obligatory Schwarzenegger whipping boy, an absolute jerk of a used-car salesman (Bill Paxton) who wants to hit on Helen, Arnold's wisecracking partner (Tom Arnold) and a pack of terrorists with a basement full of atomic warheads, and you've got enough to propel the film breathlessly from crisis to crisis and laugh to laugh. Inevitably, it's also enough to reinvigorate a marriage and wise up a little girl.
Once Harry's secret life is out of the bag, that is.
The stuntpeople and special effects teams remain busy for two and a half hours, blowing up bridges, smashing hotel lobbies, machine-gunning bathrooms and effecting last-ditch limo-to-chopper rescues. Every new action movie raises the mayhem stakes, and the True Lies technicians don't stint in the can-you-top-this? departments. You could probably save Rwanda with the original cost of all the rubble strewn around this very expensive piece of moviemaking.
In the end, though, it's the clever character reversal at the heart of the script that sets the movie afire, and Schwarzenegger, for all his limitations, is its ideal embodiment. "I married Rambo!" Helen shouts, upon finally learning what her husband actually does for a living. In truth, though, it's not Rambo she's married, and it's not the tireless automaton Schwarzenegger has portrayed in earlier action fantasies. Those superheroes were incapable of screwing up or laughing at themselves or, five minutes after outflanking an entire platoon of bad guys, of stepping in front of a city bus. The trouble with Harry is no trouble at all: He's a professional superhero with marital troubles, and if he can fix those, he might as well go ahead and fix the whole global balance of power while he's at it.
That's why we get such a kick out of him, and why True Lies could well prove to be Schwarzenegger's comeback vehicle after last summer's disaster. If not, it will still get you in out of the heat for a couple of hours.