Yes, I do mean the movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis in it. I watched it again last night, and have been wondering why I like it so.
It’s one of my favourite movies, up there with The Princess Bride. True Lies was the first movie I ever bought for myself, on VHS — actually, I think it might have been the only movie I bought for myself on VHS. (My parents gave me The Princess Bride after one too many requests to watch it when it came on the movie channel.)
When people ask me what sort of movies I like, I usually say The Princess Bride and Casanova or Gross Pointe Blank and Waking Ned Devine, because I like silly movies that are well done, particularly if they involve good costumes. I don’t watch movies for high art (though I don’t object to watching a very good movie that happens to be silly and full of humour as well, like Amélie or the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice, for instance), but I don’t like them to be awful, either.
Now, True Lies does fit most of these criteria, though the costumes aren’t particularly beautiful. It is silly and it is well-done. But I like it for more than that — and as I contemplate the ones I mentioned above I see this is much the same with them — it involves people living secret or double lives for at least part of the story-line.
I find this endlessly fascinating, probably because I’m a fairly straightforward person myself. I watch something like True Lies and am delighted by the action, the wit (there is wit in that movie), the movement from secret to revelation to a kind of squaring of the double lives that I think is what the title is trying to get at.
Perhaps it’s because this is how people are — we see our own lives as (more or less) single, but everyone else is necessarily having a double life, what we see and what we don’t see. G.K. Chesterton wrote in one of his books that although we find drama more believable, everyone is actually living a melodrama, full of heroes and victims and villains and great escapes. So watching a melodrama of action and deception and pretty costumes and people rising to the challenge is speaking to something fundamental in us.
The other part of this is how competent people are in these sorts of movies. The Man in Black in The Princess Bride is amazingly capable; but so too are Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis’ characters in True Lies, or Amélie, or Casanova. They rise to the challenges of the melodrama.
Maybe that’s the best part of True Lies, the fact that this is precisely the story line. Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) is seeking excitement and melodrama, trapped in a boring life that feels like a fakery; and learns that it is actually fake — but (and here’s the story) it needn’t be.