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'True Lies' is James Cameron at his absolute wildest

The '90s action spectacular is now streaming on Peacock for your rewatching pleasure.

By Matthew Jackson
True Lies (1994) by James Cameron

James Cameron's films have often focused on the importance of family, whether his characters are finding it, reclaiming it, or fighting for it. It's a theme that underpins the first two Terminator films, the star-crossed lovers trying to make a life together in Titanic, and of course, the Sully clan at the heart of the Avatar films.

In some way or another, it finds its way into just about every film Cameron has directed, in part because it's important to Cameron himself, and in part because it's something we can all relate to. Whether we consider our family to be the blood relatives we grew up with, the friends we've made, or both, we all connect to Cameron's searching characters and their desire for connection. That said, we also just like watching things explode.

Which brings us to True Lies, Cameron's 1994 action spectacular, which just made its way over to Peacock for your streaming needs if you're hankering for more James Cameron fun in the wake of Avatar: The Way of Water, which opened in theaters last weekend. Though True Lies is a bit dated now, particularly in some of its cultural depictions, and it's not often mentioned in the same breath as Cameron masterpieces like Aliens and T2, the film remains a blisteringly fun example of just how wild Cameron is willing to get with his setpieces, all while serving a story about a family trying desperately to reconnect.

Adapted from the French comedy La Totale!True Lies opens with a truly great hook that any blockbuster filmmaker could find a way to exploit for a lot of action and adventure. Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a super-spy who presents himself to the world, and to this wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku), as a boring salesman who works in a boring office and goes on boring business trips. Because his real job means that he's often working odd hours to, you know, save the world from terrorists, his wife and daughter start to think that he's simply a bad family man who doesn't care that much about parenting or his marriage.

But of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and it turns out the only way to prove that to Helen and Dana is to rope them into his life as a spy through a combination of deliberate scheming and accidental overlap with a real terrorist organization working on a very real threat to the U.S. population. What follows is an unpredictable ride for all three members of the Tasker family, as well as a masterclass in building action to greater and greater heights, right up to the final showdown.

True Lies (1994) PRESS

Thematically, this is a story about a family that's struggling to communicate, and therefore must find some kind of common ground through which they can forge new connections. Because it's an action movie, that happens in the form of choices they make when confronted with danger, from Dana's efforts to fend off a terrorist leader to Helen's legendary sexy dance to seduce a mysterious target (actually her husband in disguise) to Harry's own fight to keep his family together no matter what. That's all satisfying, if a little predictable, on an emotional level, but what it makes it even more impressive is Cameron's relentless efforts to just keep ratcheting up the stakes. 

That begins with the revelation, through a duplicitous car salesman played with tremendous wacky energy by the great Bill Paxton, that Helen has been seeking out adventure of her own because she feels her marriage has gone stale, and the only way she sees to greater fulfillment is a search for something new to distract her from her own monotonous existence. It continues through Harry's attempts to basically win his wife back by roping into her a fake spy game, then all the way through the real spy game that culminates in the two of them reconciling and kissing as a nuclear warhead explodes (harmlessly) in the background. By the time that mushroom clouds pops off, you can see that the metaphors Cameron's playing with aren't subtle at all, but that's exactly what makes True Lies so fun to watch. That Cameron then follows the nuclear explosion up with a dramatic Harrier Jet which features a missile flying through a building is just the icing on this very big, very gaudy cake.

So, while True Lies might never be considered the greatest film James Cameron has made, it just might be his wildest, a pure expression of one of his most time-honored themes explored though some of the most ambitious action he's ever shot. So, as you come down from that Avatar high, it might be worth checking out again. 

Stream True Lies on Peacock.