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Pick of the Week – Got Avatar on the Brain? Take Another Look at True Lies

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Last week, movie blogs and fan sites were agog with the news that James Cameron had finally unveiled part of his year-in-the-making 3D scifi epic, Avatar, at Amsterdam’s Cinema Expo. Coming years after his last feature film, Titanic, Avatar has been the subject of serious anticipation owing to its rumored brilliance. Of course, the real test of a director’s character isn’t in how he succeeds on dream projects with colossal budgets; the true test of his mettle is how he makes medium-scale pictures with modest aims — like Cameron’s True Lies.

It might seem absurd to refer to a spy comedy with a budget of $115 million as a modest picture with modest aims, but remember that True Lies fell between Terminator 2 and Titanic. The former revolutionized special effects; the latter was the biggest box-office smash of all time. Between those two peaks, True Lies looks like a silly action caper.

And with exploding bridges and fights on top of hovering Harrier jets, that’s exactly what it is: A comedy about marriage done on an epic scale. Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) works as a superspy, but his wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), thinks he’s a traveling salesman. Meanwhile, Harry’s tracking a terrorist called the Sand Spider, and Helen’s being seduced by a used car salesman (Bill Paxton) who poses as a spy to get action. Of course, Harry’s going to overreact, and, of course, his distraction will have serious consequences.

And while there’s nothing especially revolutionary about True Lies, that is what makes it so unusual for a director like Cameron. It’s a remake, a lark, a goof — and Cameron manages to keep it moving well, with Schwarzenegger at his funniest but still involved in bone-crunching fight scenes. There were rumors of a True Lies 2 that would have reunited cast and crew, but time put an end to that: Cameron claimed that, after 2001, “terrorism just isn’t funny anymore.” (Actually, that’s not strictly true — look at Team America: World Police.)

True Lies is a throwaway movie, an easily forgotten trifle, a big-budget action comedy that would have never been made if it weren’t backed by a megabucks director. And yet it works: The comedy’s funny, the effects impressive (who can forget Schwarzenegger and Curtis kissing with the glare of a distant nuclear explosion behind them?), and the stunts eye-popping. (When you see Curtis dangling from a helicopter, that’s a real helicopter, that’s really her, and Cameron’s the cameraman for the handheld shot.) When Avatar comes out, True Lies will likely be forgotten if he is anointed the visionary who saved scifi from Michael Bay. True Lies is a great reminder that when some talents aren’t busy changing the game, it’s still a real pleasure simply to watch them at play.

Click here for a full schedule of True Lies on AMC.

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