What do you do when you’re chasing a terrorist megalomaniac (bearded, wild-eyed, Persian Gulfish — you know the type) and he hops onto a motorcycle and zooms into the lobby of the Marriott? If you’re Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the superagent hero of True Lies, the answer is obvious: You ride a police horse into the hotel after him, galloping at a furious pace through lobbies, restaurants, plushly carpeted corridors, and, finally, onto one of those up-the-middle-of-the-building glass elevators, which glides you straight to the roof.
The fun of an elaborately scaled comic suspense thriller is that, no matter how spectacular the stunts are, the hero always seems to be operating out of the purest pragmatism. He doesn’t try to be an outrageous daredevil; he simply does whatever it takes to get the job done. So does True Lies. Directed by James Cameron (the Terminator films, The Abyss), who approaches the creation of entertainment the way that some people approach nuclear engineering (and with roughly the same budget), the movie is a high-powered amalgam, combining the far-fetched acrobatic nihilism of a James Bond adventure, the bullet-spattered pow! of an action thriller, and the buoyant screwball charm of Romancing the Stone — the whole concoction laced with a gee-whiz humor that owes more to late-night televison than to any cinematic genre. (How do you make a violent, over-the-top action fantasy seem friendly? Cast a surprisingly winning Tom Arnold as your resident slob jester.) True Lies is so eager to give you a giddy good time that you’re more than happy to let it work you over. It’s a likably disposable pop cocktail.
Be warned, though. The premise is so convoluted that the movie takes an entire clunky hour to find its groove. At first, it looks like a straight-ahead Bondian knockoff, as Harry, an agent for the Omega Sector, a secret government outfit specializing in the prevention of nuclear terrorism, sneaks into a posh dinner party in his vintage-007 tux, pausing to dance a tango even as he’s tapping into the host’s computer system. Having accomplished his mission, he jumps into the Omega van with his two techie comrades, Gib (Arnold) and Faisil (Grant Heslov), and is transported to his comfortable suburban Washington, D.C., home, where his wife, a prim legal secretary named Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), and teenage daughter, Dana (Eliza Dushku), are under the impression that he’s an overworked computer salesman.
You’d think they’d suspect something: Harry, out saving the world, doesn’t even have time to attend his own birthday party. He’s not the only one harboring a secret either. Helen, miserable at being neglected, has been flirting with another man, a gregariously sleazy used-car salesman (Bill Paxton) who dresses like a ’70s disco hound and seduces women by pretending to be (yes) a spy. When Harry decides to test Helen’s fidelity by posing as a government interrogator and questioning her from behind a one-way mirror, he discovers that she was just longing for a bit of adventure. And so he provides it, ordering her to carry out an ”assignment” that requires her to dress like a prostitute and visit a stranger in a hotel room. Jamie Lee Curtis, her body looking a bit, uh toned for a demure suburbanite, shimmies out of her clothes and does a hilariously sexy bump-and-grind, the most crowd-pleasing dance of freedom since Tom Cruise partied in his underwear in Risky Business.
Up until now, the marriage has seemed little more than a dim cartoon. But when Helen is liberated, so is the movie, as she now teams up with Harry to stop the nuclear terrorist Aziz (Art Malik). There’s a reason that Curtis, likable as she is, has never been a bigger star. Despite her shapely build, she radiates very little sensuality. She’s funny and smart, but in a practical, feet-on-the-ground way; she’s like a drier, saner Carrie Fisher. Total sanity isn’t necessarily the quality we look for in movie stars, but it works for Curtis in this role. Her Helen, who starts out as a nerd in pearls and spectacles, retains her reserve even after she lets her hair down: She’s fire wrapped in a cardigan. (Her most heroic act is accidentally dropping an Uzi that fires at the bad guys as it twirls down the stairs.) And Curtis’ middle-American feistiness sparks Schwarzenegger, who in Last Action Hero seemed nothing but pecs and ego. Here, he’s rediscovered his charm, the slightly goofy quizzicality that humanizes him beneath his muscular armor. He gazes at Curtis with such avid affection that, in the climax, when he reaches down from a speeding helicopter to grab her hand, it’s the bond between them — and not just the thriller logistics — that makes the scene crackle.
In the second climax, it’s the logistics. Determined to get us cheering, Cameron sends Harry off in a Harrier jet to rescue his kidnapped daughter. But how can the movie top all the previous whiz-bang fighter-plane sequences we’ve ever sat through? Ingeniously, Cameron slows down the whiz-bang. Instead of zooming through the air with top-gun bravado, Harry hovers next to a skyscraper, maneuvering the plane like the world’s biggest bumper car and turning what could have been a routinely explosive finale into a vertiginous tour de force. And when he finally sends the villain flying, how clever is the catchphrase that Schwarzenegger gets to dispatch him with? It’s so pithy, so exquisitely minimal, so you’ve-heard-it-before-but-never-quite-like-this, that you giggle at the sheer idiot perfection of it. In the summer season, that’s as close to poetry as you’re going to get. B+