The Lies That Bond

It's a pretty widespread practice in professional sports to retire the number of a player who has excelled at a given position. Hollywood ought to try something along the same lines. Oh sure, they've got the sidewalk stars along Hollywood Boulevard and the hand- and footprints in front of Mann's Chinese Theater. But if Tinseltown really wanted to honor the great ones, they'd retire an actor's role after he or she has performed it to the max. Clark Gable would always be Rhett and Vivien Leigh would always be Scarlett. Bogart would be Rick forever; Brando would be the Godfather; Gloria Swanson would be Nora Desmond; George C. Scott would be Patton; Faye Dunaway would be Joan Crawford. And nobody, but nobody would be allowed to play James Bond except Sean Connery.

Think of the pretty boys who have attempted to fill Connery's shoes over the years: George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton. Now they're bandying about Pierce Brosnan's name. Pierce Brosnan, for crying out loud. What next, Macaulay Culkin? How about Laurence Olivier? OK, he's dead, but he'll still be able to emote better than Pierce Brosnan.

No, there's only one James Bond. Unless someone discovers the fountain of youth and gives Sean Connery a swig, the role should be retired and all celluloid and videotape evidence of the pretenders' pitiful performances incinerated immediately.

James Cameron, the writer-director of True Lies, the summer's rollicking budget-buster of an action flick, understood that. Instead of making a straight-ahead Bond movie and contending with the Connery legacy, Cameron invented a Bondlike hero named Harry Tasker. No matter. A Bond by any other name would shoot as sweet. But unlike Ian Fleming's bed-hopping secret agent, Cameron's spy has a family, and therein lies the rub. For the usual obscure national-security reasons, Harry has kept his real profession secret from Helen, his wife of fifteen years, and Dana, his rebellious teenage daughter. He loves them dearly but he neglects them a lot -- international terrorists being notorious for keeping such rotten hours and whatnot.

Helen is getting a little bored with the man she thinks sells computers for a living at about the same time a band of Arab terrorists who call themselves the Crimson Jihad acquires a set of nuclear warheads. It's up to Harry to save his country and his marriage, not necessarily in that order.

As a tongue-in-cheek, neurotic Nineties Bond, Schwarzenegger is back on solid footing. From the opening sequence, when Arnold's Tasker breaks into a heavily guarded compound at the edge of a frozen lake via an underwater passage, then peels off his wet suit to reveal a wrinkle-free tux, True Lies walks a fine line between homage and sendup. The action sequences are first-rate throughout -- better than in any Bond movie since 1965's Thunderball -- and Schwarzenegger is a hell of a lot more credible in the role of butt-kicking superspy than any of the official Bond substitutes. He's the most physical actor to play the part; Connery was sleeker and smarter, but Arnold gets points for brute strength and self-effacing humor.

There are other familiar 007-esque elements, from Charlton Heston as an M-like boss to Tia Carrere as Barbara Carrera's Fatima Blush femme fatale. And Harry's thrice-divorced, married-to-the-company sidekick (played to smart-ass perfection by Tom Arnold) gets more screen time than all the Felix Leiters combined, and most of it serves as comic relief.

No self-respecting Bond film is complete without plenty of slick shootouts and incredible escapes from impossible jams, and True Lies is no exception. A gun battle in a men's room spills over into a horse-versus-motorcycle chase through the lobby of an elegant hotel and on into the elevators. Harrier jets blow up a bridge; afterward there's a nifty helicopter-limousine rescue scene and a climactic showdown atop a Brickell Avenue skyscraper. Cameron doesn't have a Q doling out nifty gadgets; instead he lays on the Nineties special effects. In lesser hands this might have been a mistake, but as he did in Terminator 2, Cameron pulls out the stops and elicits the oohs and aahs with regularity. When was the last time you saw the hero and heroine embrace and smooch while a nuclear warhead detonates in the background?

Cameron and Schwarzenegger got the secret-agent-with-a-double-life premise from a French movie, 1991's La totale, which helps explain True Lies's abrupt and perplexing detour into twisted melodrama in the second act. When Tasker suspects his wife (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) is cheating on him, he prevails upon his spook colleagues to keep tabs on her. The eavesdropping escalates into truly sick behavior when Tasker's buddies help him kidnap his wife and the unfortunate sap who's been hitting on her. Both are humiliated and subjected to the scares of their lives; the wife is thrown into an isolation tank and interrogated by her husband's electronically altered voice from behind a two-way mirror. Stalking, harassment, torture, degradation, coercion -- what a barrel of laughs! Too bad O.J. wasn't taking notes.

It's such a jarring shift in tone from jaunty, superficial action flick to demented psychodrama that you can't help but wonder what Cameron is trying to say. Is this a meditation on dishonesty in modern relationships? On the disintegration of the nuclear family in the Nineties? On a man's inalienable right to bully and manipulate his woman? Unfortunately, the segment raises more questions than it answers. Just when you fear he's going to derail the entire movie with this bizarre digression, Cameron snaps out of his maunder and plunges his male-female principals into jeopardy -- as a team this time -- and the film is off to the races again.

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