Captain Marvel may not, as one especially hysterical bit of fanboy outrage puts it, “castrate” Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, but the movie does take a shot—literally—at another action-movie icon. When Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers crashes to Earth in the mid-1990s, she lands in a Blockbuster Video, and the first thing she sees is a cardboard stand-up for the movie True Lies, featuring a tuxedoed Arnold Schwarzenegger with an admiring Jamie Lee Curtis draped over his shoulder. Still groggy from the intergalactic trip and rattled by her unfamiliar surroundings, Carol reads the gun-wielding figure as a threat and fires a photon blast in his direction, leaving a smoking hole where Arnold’s head used to be.
With its car chases, fistfights, and self-conscious sense of humor, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Marvel entry pays knowing tribute to the action movies of the era while rewriting the genre’s history. The flashbacks to Carol’s time as an Air Force pilot in the 1980s could be straight out of Top Gun, if it weren’t for that movie’s lack of interest in women as anything other than romantic complications for straight men, and the cocky flyboy who harasses her bears a significant resemblance to Tom Cruise. But with True Lies, the homage feels a lot less affectionate, and the attack on the codes of the genre—and the period—seems a lot more pointed. Rather than rewriting its history, the movie takes a scorched-earth (or scorched-cardboard) approach. Frankly, True Lies deserves it.
At this point, True Lies might be most famous as the James Cameron movie James Cameron doesn’t want you to see. Twenty-five years after its initial release, the movie has never been released on Blu-ray or remastered for high-definition TVs, and the only way you can stream it is by getting a subscription to Cinemax. The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson was among those who took Captain Marvel’s reference as a prompt to revisit the movie, but when he went searching for it, he came up empty-handed.
Cameron’s The Abyss has been missing in action for even longer, and though he’s said for years that he’s been working on bringing both movies into the digital age, he admitted in 2017 that with working on the forthcoming Avatar sequels, reissuing the movies had “sort of fallen off my to-do list.” (The latest rumors are that the movie might return for its 30th anniversary this year, but unless you’ve been free-dive training alongside Kate Winslet, better not hold your breath.) But at least with The Abyss, there’s a reason for the delay. Although the movie won an Oscar for its special effects, Cameron had to rework the original ending when he was unhappy with its computer-generated tsunamis. He took another crack at it with a revised and extended “special edition” a few years later, but the film has been waiting for a definitive reworking since 2000, when it was released on a DVD so old it’s formatted for tube TV sets.
True Lies, on the other hand, is just lying around. Cameron has never offered an explanation for why a straightforward transfer should take so long, but in a way, it’s lucky for him that the movie’s been largely out of circulation for the past 25 years. Titanic established Cameron as an unfettered romantic, and Terminator 2 and Aliens have been enshrined as action-movie classics with iconic heroines at their center. Cameron’s criticisms of Wonder Woman may have gotten him some flak, but he’s still the man who gave us Sarah Connor and turned Ellen Ripley into a female Rambo, and the recent success of Alita: Battle Angel shows he hasn’t lost his knack for creating crowd-pleasing, ass-kicking angels of vengeance.
But for the man who directed the two most successful movies of all time, Cameron’s reputation has felt a little soft in recent years. Sure, Avatar grossed almost $3 billion dollars, but critics have been pointing for years to signs that the movie’s pop-culture imprint is surprisingly shallow, and the unprecedented plan to film four sequels simultaneously seems like something close to lunacy. (Producer Jon Landau recently said that when he has doubts about the scope of the project, he pulls up the wait times for Disney World’s Avatar rides on his phone.) Betting against James Cameron has not, historically speaking, been a good idea, but he’s never pushed that idea so far or risked so much, and the cultural shifts of the past decade may have dampened the audience’s appetite for an exoticist, white savior fantasy.
Avatar is, however, defensible. (I know, because I have defended it.) True Lies is not. The story of Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger), a covert agent who is so undercover that even his wife, Helen (Curtis), doesn’t know he works for the government, is meant as a comic twist on the suave super-spies of the 1970s and ’80s. Arnie’s character can kill a man with his bare hands and dance a sultry tango, but at home he’s an office-supply salesman with a bored, neglected wife and a daughter (Eliza Dushku) who thinks he’s a schmo. When Harry overhears Helen talking to a friend about a “mysterious stranger,” he’s enraged by the idea that she’s having an affair, and he marshals all the tools of his trade—hidden camera, microphones, tracking devices—to find out what she’s hiding. (That he’s outraged by her deception but lies to her every day of their lives is an irony the movie notes but doesn’t particularly dwell on.) It turns out Helen is being seduced by yet another liar, a used-car salesman (Bill Paxton) who’s convinced her that he’s a government agent, and Harry turns the tables by kidnapping her, slipping a hood over her head, and throwing her into a van. He then questions her from behind a two-way mirror, his disguised voice pressing her on whether she’s slept with another man as she shivers in fear for her life.
It’s a truly grotesque sequence, made more so by the shots of Curtis’ heat-mapped face as she pours out her heart in a concrete bunker, while Schwarzenegger sits impassively and lets her do it. And it’s the heart of a movie that is deeply invested in leering at women and letting men watch. After Helen says she only got involved with Paxton’s used-car salesman out of a need for excitement, Harry, his voice still disguised, recruits her as a civilian asset for a phony spy mission, which requires her to go undercover as a prostitute. Although she’s been depicted up to that point as a frumpy, frazzled hausfrau, Helen makes a smooth transition to a skimpy, skintight dress, and makes her way to the room of the man she’s meant to seduce. It’s Harry again, but his face is concealed in shadow, and he uses recordings of a co-worker’s voice to issue her instructions: Take off your dress and dance for me. Curtis does her best to inject a few notes of comic complexity into the scene, playing up Helen’s physical awkwardness—her first attempt at a sexy dance has more than a little Elaine Benes in it—but eventually she’s forced to grab her crotch and gyrate while Harry ogles her, Schwarzenegger’s stoic expression reading as something between lust and contempt.
True Lies is vile in other ways, most pointedly the way it treats its Arab terrorist villains. They’re two-dimensional caricatures to begin with, leering monsters right out of a propaganda cartoon, but because the movie is ostensibly a comedy, it also takes care to humiliate them: There’s a Three Stooges bit with a teetering truck in which the punchline is three men’s deaths, and when, in the movie’s climax, the terrorists’ leader is clinging to the outside of Harry’s fighter jet (it’s a long story), Cameron makes sure to emphasize that he’s being repeatedly whacked in the balls. With the movie’s gender politics, you can argue that Cameron—who, at that point, was twice divorced—was trying to get at something about the corrosive effects of deception on a marriage, even if it’s muddled by anger and ugliness. (As Harry’s confirmed bachelor sidekick, Tom Arnold gets a little too much enjoyment out of lines like, “Ditch the bitch!”) But the depiction of the villains is straight-up racist. It was already revolting in 1994, and it’s somehow worse now.
Given that True Lies is also the movie on which Dushku, then 12, says she was sexually molested by a stunt coordinator, the stench around it is profound, and it’s not the kind of thing a 4K restoration can clear up. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be seen, if only as a reminder of the benighted past that movies like Captain Marvel—and hopefully, the better ones that will be greenlighted in its wake—have to fight against. You can’t blame Carol Danvers for taking her shot. You can only congratulate her on her aim.