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Movie Review : The Secret Life of ‘True Lies’ : Exciting Action Is Undercut by Film’s Meanness

TIMES FILM CRITIC

James Cameron has a most active imagination. Not for him the mere copying of what has gone before, even if his past does include “Aliens,” “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2.” Compelled to come up with sequences that other manipulators of mayhem have yet to imagine, he pushes the envelope further and further into the unknown with each film he makes.

So “True Lies,” Cameron’s latest $100-million-plus effort as a writer-director, considerably ups the ante for action films with snazzy sequences like a horse and motorcycle chase through a hotel and the inventive use of Harrier jets (capable of both flying horizontally and hovering like helicopters). As the perfectionist creator of bravura set pieces, Cameron is still the leader of the pack.

Unlike the director’s past films, “True Lies” is not nonstop action. Based on a French film called “La Totale!,” it is partly a romantic spoof of action films in general and James Bond-type spy thrillers in particular. Even though this halfway house approach means less time for explosions, both Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger prove pleasantly adept at kidding the superhuman image they’ve worked so hard to build up elsewhere.

And yet, and yet . . . . Despite all this success, all is not well with “True Lies.” A strain of crudeness and mean-spirited humiliation, especially toward women, runs through the film like a nasty virus, vitiating all it touches. Most audiences, understandably diverted, will either not notice or perhaps not even mind, but it is disturbing and it shouldn’t be ignored.

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The crux of that original French film is a twist on a Scarlet Pimpernel theme about a secret agent whose life is a secret to those closest to him. While timid Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis) thinks her husband of 15 years is a plodding computer salesman, in reality he’s an ace operative for Omega Sector, “The Last Line of Defense,” one of those clandestine government bureaus that filmmakers hold dear.

Speaker of six languages (all, apparently, with an Austrian accent) and a whiz with weapons and gadgetry, Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) is introduced in a Bond-like scene crashing a heavily guarded party hosted by a wealthy Arab banker and his femme fatale girlfriend Juno (Tia Carrere).

Both in that sequence and the ones that follow, “True Lies” is able to effectively kid itself, to playfully mock the conventions of espionage thrillers. Casting the breezy Tom Arnold as Harry’s partner Gib helps, but more important is Cameron’s unerring ability to find the humor in Schwarzenegger, something the people at “Last Action Hero,” for instance, were unable to manage.

But, while Harry’s been busy defending the free world, his marriage has been disintegrating faster than a U.N. cease-fire, and “True Lies’ ” plot revolves around his attempts to hold it together while duking it out with Juno, her cohorts at the terrorist Crimson Jihad and their stock of stolen nuclear arms.

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Being the kind of exceptional action director it takes to bring all this off demands, in part, a willingness never to grow up, to retain a young person’s enthusiasm for violence and things that explode. And it’s that streak of juvenilia, unfortunately, that has come out in “True Lies” in other ways as well.

Taken individually, the cruder and childish things about this film, its determination to use caricatured unshaven Arabs as terrorists, the pleasure it takes in continually mortifying a weasely used-car salesman (Bill Paxton) in the most personal ways, might be overlooked, but added together they leave a sour taste.

Even more off-putting is “True Lies’ ” treatment of women, specifically Curtis’ character. Although having Helen play most of the film as plain and mousy is perfectly OK, an extended sequence where she awkwardly prances around a hotel suite in skimpy underwear, although obviously meant to be funny, comes across as an exercise in painful humiliation. Perhaps Cameron, whose earlier films were noted for their strong women, simply lost his bearings in this new genre and miscalculated his effects, but the results are not pleasant to watch.

Perhaps, it could be argued, all this is taking a bit of diversionary fluff far too seriously. On the other hand, when a staggering sum of money is spent on a film that will get the widest possible exposure worldwide, a society ignores the regrettable parts of its message (which includes a casual approach to wholesale slaughter) only at its own risk. Good as he is in so many areas, even a celebrated perfectionist like Cameron can’t perfect what he doesn’t know how to do.

* MPAA rating: R for “a lot of action/violence and some language.” Times guidelines: a very high body count and a general air of hostility, especially toward women.

‘True Lies’

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Harry Tasker

Jamie Lee Curtis: Helen Tasker

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Tom Arnold: Gib

Bill Paxton: Simon

Tia Carrere: Juno

Art Malik: Aziz

Eliza Dushku: Dana

A Lightstorm Entertainment production, released by 20th Century Fox Pictures. Director James Cameron. Producers James Cameron, Stephanie Austin. Executive producers Robert Shriver, Rae Sanchini, Lawrence Kasanoff. Screenplay James Cameron, based on a screenplay by Claude Zidi, Simon Michael and Didier Kaminka. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter. Editor Conrad Buff, Mark Goldblatt, Richard A. Harris. Costumes Marlene Stewart. Music Brad Fiedel. Production design Peter Lamont. Art director Robert Laing, Michael Novotny. Set decorator Cindy Carr. Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes.

* Playing in general release throughout Southern California.

“True Lies” was originally scheduled to open and be reviewed on Friday. Early this week, The Times learned that the movie was being shown tonight on a very large number of screens--1,300 nationwide, including about 100 in Southern California. The movie opens Friday on about 1,000 additional screens.

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