Revisiting ‘True Lies,’ The First Movie to Break the $100 Million Budget

The promise of neverending 'Avatar' sequels begins with this remake of a French comedy.

True Lies Stare
Twentieth Century Fox

We may not be James Bond, but we’re all secret agents. The face I show my wife differs from the one I show my coworkers, which is different than the one I present to my friends. Which one is true? Sometimes, I don’t know. Other times, I feel like they all are, and in another moment, none of them feels real. How we present ourselves to society is an exhausting game of doubt swirled with regret and terror. Take each day as they come, survive one, and try to survive the next.

If life is doomed to a perpetual exploration of second guesses and uncertainty, then it might as well toss in a few obvious villains to smash. We need victories to pepper throughout the everyday doldrums. That’s the appeal of the “License to Kill” fantasy. I’m a phony, you’re a phony, let’s shoot it out until life makes sense — as long as the other guy falls in your crosshairs.

True Lies jabs directly into the doubt that shadows everything. Harry Trasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is livin’ large as America’s top brass double agent, wooing treacherous snakes into giving up the goods so he can preemptively explode domestic threats. To his lovely wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku), Harry is a mild-mannered computer salesman without a care in the world. To his wisecracking partner (Tom Arnold) and one-eyed taskmaster boss (Charlton Heston), he’s America’s last line of defense. Harry enjoys both sides of his life and absorbs a perverse pleasure in masking one from the other.

Until a crack gleams in Helen’s smile and Harry realizes that his balancing act is actually creating a gulf between husband and wife, one just large enough for a wannabe spy/car salesman (Bill Paxton) to weasel his way inside. Taking evasive action, Harry concocts a scheme to gift Helen the 007 experience he thrives within, creating a charade where she’s our country’s only hope. Then the real terrorists show themselves, and both Harry and Helen have to settle their romantic squabble while the bullets fly.

By 1994, the era of mindless, kill-crazy-rampage flicks that Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone championed were over. Terminator 2: Judgement Day gave Arnie the confidence to get meta and weird with Last Action Hero, and the box office response slapped him back into place. He needed a film that fits into the public’s understanding of his persona but also offered more than squibs and severed limbs.

James Cameron was looking to have some fun. T2 firmly established him as king of the world, even if he wouldn’t publicly ascend to that throne until 1997 with the release of Titanic, and it granted him access to giant sacks of cash most thought impossible. He saw potential in a recent French comedy titled La Totale! that pairs family disputes with global warfare and only required a few alterations for his aesthetic — meaning money, Arnie’s square jaw, and a helluva lot more gunfire.

Upon its release, most of the chatter around the film involved its seemingly astronomical cost. True Lies still holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the first film to cross the $100 million budget. Cameron despised discussing the expense of the film, evading nearly every question that had the price tag as its subject. He told the Los Angeles Daily News at the time, “A film should be reviewed based on whether it’s successful at its stated goals. A film usually states its goals within the first act, and it either succeeds or fails based on what it’s trying to do, or based on what you want it to be doing, which are two different subjects.” The director was adamant that the press consider inflation and the reality behind such bloated productions like Cleopatra, Gone with the Wind, and Spartacus. Grand vision requires the monetary means to achieve it, folks.

Cameron may never tell, but you gotta wonder where all that money went. The film hops all over the place, jumping from Washington DC to LA to Rhode Island to Florida. That ain’t cheap. There are a series of gleefully gratuitous set pieces that culminate in the destruction of the Seven Mile Bridge by two genuine Marine Harrier Jump Jets and an assault on a Miami skyscraper complete with dangling kidnapped daughter. The final hurrah not amounting to a single bullet in the forehead of the villain but a tumbling fistfight atop a jet during which terrorist Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik) tumbles onto one of its many missiles and is fired into a helicopter loaded with leftover henchmen. Lots and lots and lots of bluescreen.

Twenty-five years later, the film’s budgetary extravagance is less concerning than its xenophobic patriotism. Harry Trasker is the man on the wall, assuring the security of our white picket fences from the encroaching horde of brown men. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Hollywood was hungry for new machine-gun fodder, and fanatical Muslims were the assigned antagonists. While not unique to True Lies, the attention swarming around the bloated budget and the previous box office dominance of T2 cocked many an eyebrow to the politics of the film. The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee reached out to both Schwarzenegger and Cameron in 1994 asking for a clarification regarding the villainous generalization. The two men stayed silent while the studio issued a brief statement to the Washington Post: “The film is a work of fiction and does not represent the actions or beliefs of a particular culture or religion.”

Compared to Liam Neeson’s Taken tirade or the weekly barrage of 24 that looms over the horizon from True Lies, Cameron’s portrayal of two-dimensional terrorism appears quaint and amounts to little more than a distraction to the character dynamics that are driving the narrative. That is not to sound like an excuse for the Islamaphobia on display, but the bad guys do not matter. They’re bodies that need to get dropped so Harry and Helen can see each other as who they really are. Comfortability with their disposable purpose will vary amongst the audience.

True Lies disguises itself as an action film by putting Schwarzenegger and his guns up front, but it’s much more Twins than Commando. Or maybe more Kindergarten Cop. As Harry has his family-face peeled back and experiences the exuberance of his wife removed from the false drudgery he’s walled up around her at home, the rubberband back-and-forth of deceit is snapped. He knows his wife in full. It’s time he shows himself to her, too.

The film secured one weekend as the top movie in America but was immediately dethroned when Forrest Gump opened seven days later. Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis would own 1994 with The Lion King ultimately coming in second at the box office. True Lies got the bronze and marked a sort of finish line for its star. In the remaining decade, Schwarzenegger would knock out Junior, Eraser, Jingle All The Way, Batman & Robin, and End of Days. The early 2000s would see The 6th Day, Collateral Damage, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Time for the Governator to reign while The Terminator retired…for a bit.

Cameron had his fun with True Lies acting as a flex for Titanic. The $100 million barrier was always going to shatter, but it’s significant that Cameron shattered it and secured a profit for the studio. Victory. Give the man his high-five and don’t believe he can’t do it again. All disbelieving gawkers were dunked in 1997 and again in 2009. Avatars 2, 3, 4, and 5 are coming. Absurd expectations? That’s where the man lives; luring audiences in with his audacity and a promise of escalation.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.