CINEMA / Arnie in almost-human shock

THESE DAYS only two things are certain in movies: death and James Cameron's grosses. Imagine your life depended on making a hit. (If you already do this, you are running a Hollywood studio.) Your first phone call should go to Cameron, even before Spielberg. He has everything it takes to make a blockbuster: the smartness to second-guess the market; the boldness to dare - but not too far; the logistical and leadership skills of a Field Marshal; the intelligence to know better; the ruthlessness not to care. All of Cameron's hits have started from beguiling ideas - science fiction bumps into philosophy in The Terminator's speculations on time-travel - which are then bludgeoned into submission by hi-tech special effects. Following the pattern, his new film, True Lies (15), flirts with thoughts about spying and split personality, before settling

for big bangs. It is an oxymoron aimed at morons.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Harry Tasker: to his wife and daughter, a drearily average computer salesman; to the US government, the crackest of agents in its Omega Sector, its 'Last Line of Defence'. The film opens with Harry displaying the full range of his daring in stealing some documents from a Swiss chateau during a ball. We see Arnold emerge from under the ice outside the house. He peels off his wet suit to reveal not the familiar bloated torso, but a tuxedo. Once the mission is completed, he stops for a tango with villainess Tia Carrere, before wasting a few guards on his return to base.

That cocktail of suavity and brutality, shaken not stirred, is, of course, pure James Bond. And True Lies is Cameron's Bond film to end all Bond films - rather awkward for Universal, which produced it, as it is about to shoot a new Bond series. As pre-emptive strikes go, Cameron's is nuclear. Here is the familiar windowless HQ with its rows of blinking neon. There's even an M figure, played by a crusty-voiced Charlton Heston in an eye-patch. Cameron is apeing Bond, sending him up, and, ultimately, outdoing him. He spent dollars 140m (most of which has already been recouped at the American box office), and you can see it up on the screen. Chases with Harrier jets, such as we see at the climax of True Lies, don't come cheap. The recent Bond films have been beset by miserly budgets - in the last one, 007 drove an American Ford. It is hard to see how the new Bond can compete.

But the twist in True Lies is in the spy's un-Bond-like domestic life. Tasker is a devoted but dull husband. He is bound by secrecy not to reveal his heroism at home. But also we sense that he is a man who can only truly express himself at work. The joke is that Harry's wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) feels stifled by her spouse's stolidity, unaware that she is married to a James Bond. She finds excitement in the blandishments of con man Bill Paxton, who invents for himself the sort of cloak-and-dagger exploits that her husband really performs. When Harry gets wind of her wavering, the plot moves into gear with a collision between his professional and private worlds.

Whether a man who lives a double life must have a divided soul is an intriguing question the film never explores. We know nothing of Tasker's past. How did he reach such eminence? Where did he come from with his thick accent and body? And how did he maintain his cover with his wife for 17 years? Did she never wonder why a computer salesman needed the physique of a Sherman tank? For Cameron, the domestic drama is merely a touch-paper for his fireworks. He is more interested in explosions than people.

The film is billed as a comedy. But the biggest joke is on those who have celebrated Cameron as a feminist hero because of the strong women's roles in his previous films. His women have always, in fact, been ambivalent figures. They are prominent and gutsy - but so too were the damsels-in-distress of silent cinema. Linda Hamilton (now Cameron's real-life partner) fought hard in Terminator II for her son, but she fitted a male stereotype of how a strong woman should act - the heroine as lioness.

In True Lies, Cameron shows his true colours. There is a scene in which Curtis, locked in a cell at HQ, is interrogated by Schwarzenegger, his voice specially distorted. She wails of her love for her husband and lashes at the wall. It is a hard scene to read, but it makes you uncomfortable. On one level, it reworks the old device by which a couple reveals its feelings through disguise (True Lies, indeed), like the climax of Paris, Texas, when Harry Dean Stanton re-establishes contact with Nastassja Kinski in a dingy hostess booth. But we are also watching a husband torture his wife. The whole tenor of the film is of masculine swagger, allied to a sense that the limit to women's ambitions is a dash of romance. I can't remember the word 'bitch' appearing so often in a recent feature. And why did Cameron keep in this hackneyed old taunt: 'Women - can't live with them, can't kill 'em?'

The answer is that Cameron will throw in anything he thinks might stoke up an audience. The film's villains, led by Art Malik, who performs an absurd repertoire of glares and grimaces, are an Arab terrorist group called Crimson Jihad. A film-maker has to attach his miscreants to some nationality, you may say. Except that with Cameron, who wrote the film, everything is calculated. He must have noted the anti-Arab feeling in America following the World Trade Center bomb, and decided to write off any business in the Middle East. Crudity and excess are built into his approach, down to the multiple-climax ending and his hyper-kinetic editing, as brutal and heartlessly staccato as machine- gun fire. Rather than tease the audience with suspense, he overwhelms it with sensation.

Surprisingly, the best thing in True Lies is Schwarzenegger. True, the role suits him down to the ground. The comedy of Harry Tasker is the comedy of Arnold, of his lumbering squareness and the absurd unsuitability of his warrior features to the real world. But it's also a measure of his ferocious thirst for self-improvement that this icon of inhumanity has so inched forward his acting and thawed his personality as to seem, well, almost human. His range is still minimal, but he can now get real feeling into his facial expressions - dismay and jealousy as well as the trademark triumphant smirk. He has overtaken Roger Moore and maybe Charles Bronson in the acting stakes, and is improving all the time. Watch out, Harrison Ford.

Much of the film is set in Washington DC, and you can't help noticing how at home Arnold looks there. One with his sort of frame can hardly deny that he is interested in power. He has not so much embodied the American dream as pumped it up with steroids. Can it be long before his audience becomes his subjects? I only hope he does not reserve too high a rank for James Cameron. With a man so in love with conflagration as Secretary of State, we would all be on a short lease.

Baby's Day Out (U) is penned by John Hughes, who was not so much responsible for as guilty of the Home Alone movies. This is the same formula with a baby: a baby who bamboozles the crooks who kidnap him. To praise the film for working through visual gags is also to note how much better it would have been as a one-reel silent. The baby (played by twins) is cute, but lacks the horrible fascination of Macaulay Culkin.

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