FILM / Consider this a disaster: Adam Mars-Jones is stunned by the new Schwarzenegger vehicle, True Lies, 'an explosion in a script conference'

Every now and then there comes a film with the power to bring criticism to its knees, whimpering. Such a film is the opposite of a masterpiece, nothing so humble as a failure but an astounding condensation of everything that can go wrong with a project. True Lies, the new Arnold Schwarzenegger action adventure, is just such a reverse classic or anti-paragon.

Schwarzenegger's most recent film, Last Action Hero, amply acquainted him with grief at the box office. Yet that film's failure was a small thing, a simple matter of not noticing that the sensibilities of The Purple Rose of Cairo and Rambo are not mutually enriching, but cancel each other out. It's a slip any ego-bloated plutocrat could make. The wrongheadedness of True Lies is in a dimension beyond that. Despite an epic budget, it's less a film than an explosion in a script conference, with tatters of genre flying past our eyes in all directions.

To give a small example of the film's incoherence: on her first appearance, the hero's teenage daughter steals money from his best friend. He doesn't get a chance to confront her with her wrongdoing right away, and the life of a modern spy being what it is, the next time they have something approaching quality time is when she has been kidnapped by the Crimson Jihad terrorist group and is clinging for dear life from a crane, the priming key of a nuclear bomb round her neck, while Dad tries to persuade her to drop into the cockpit of a jump-jet he's borrowed. A perfect opportunity, you might think, for some tough love. A good time to murmur wryly, 'Now will you apologise to Gib for picking his pocket? We'll take it out of your allowance and say no more about it.'

But the theft, so important at the time, is never mentioned. Presumably there was some footage shot to elaborate the theme, which had to go in order to keep the running-time down to its obese 140 minutes. Then why not cut the theft itself? Because it performs a function much more important than mere character development, namely hardware introduction. The theft is found out because Dad's sidekick Gib (Tom Arnold) is showing off a gadget that will feature heavily in later scenes, a video-camera concealed in a cigarette packet which relays images directly to the inner surface of Arnie's shades.

True Lies isn't actually a new film but that dreaded thing, a remake from the French. Is there something particularly Gallic about having wish-fulfilment fantasies about perfect spies or assassins, and then lumbering them with dreary emotional problems? There seems to be, judging from La Totale (the original of True Lies) and Besson's Nikita, a reverse classic from a few years ago remade in America to score a double.

I do see that it would be hard to turn down a suggestion from Arnold Schwarzenegger, or even to send food back at his restaurant. But James Cameron, to whom Schwarzenegger brought his idea after seeing La Totale, should have been butch enough to say No. He had most to lose. Schwarzenegger has made plenty of duff films in his time (Commando, Red Heat, the Conan movies . . . shall I go on?), but Cameron's CV, though much shorter, is very impressive. Sure, his Alien sequel coarsened the heroine, turning her from a coincidentally female competent person into a driven adoptive mother. But even his worst film, The Abyss, delivered some classic sequences before it dissolved into New Age noodling. And both Terminators can be enjoyed more than once.

There has been humour in Cameron films, usually grim, but True Lies, to the extent that it is a comedy, is his first. A director with more experience in this line might realise that comedy too has rules, is not just a matter of breaking expectations. No one in their right mind, for instance, would cast Jamie Lee Curtis, Jamie Lee 'what's-a-body-double?' - Curtis, as a dissatisfied wife, costuming her in tasteful cardigans and sullen pearls, giving her glasses, unless they were going to go all the way down the dowdy road so as to reveal her as the new Joanne Woodward.

When Curtis's character starts to loosen up and get sexy, it's no surprise, just proof that her casting against type was a half-hour bluff. It's been obvious from the start that there isn't enough preppy knitwear in the world to hold her back for more than a few minutes from doing erotic dance routines in strange hotel rooms and dangling screaming from helicopters.

In the opening sequence, Cameron presents Schwarzenegger's character, Harry, as a sort of Bond figure, at a swanky reception in Switzerland: frogman suit revealing impeccable evening dress underneath, fluency in many languages - the subtitles tell us in so many words that his Arabic is perfect - stylish tango. Soon Harry is shooting people in batches as they chase him across the snow, faster on foot than they are on skis, and not even out of breath by the time he reaches the getaway van.

Bond heroics look pretty stale these days, but the way to pep them up is not to have Bond lamenting that his wife doesn't understand him - the reason being that he is obliged in the interests of security to bore her with shop talk from a non-existent job. For about five minutes, Arnie gives us his Jealous, when Harry suspects his wife of 'having an affear' (has he even told her he's an Austrian bodybuilder?), but Ian McKellen can rest easy.

Most of the violence in True Lies is sanitised, a matter of people falling down in time to loud noises. But for a single brief sequence a different code applies, and suddenly people are receving scalpels in their eyes or being impaled on hooks and dragged across floors. Cameron seems to have lost all sense of what an audience can be made to care about, a sense that once seemed infallible. In Terminator 2, for instance, he took the risk of staging a nuclear holocaust in the heroine's tormented dreams, and managed to make its sombre horror part of the film's atmosphere. There is a nuclear explosion in True Lies, too, but this one is curiously innocent of shock wave and fallout, despite being produced by a second-hand Russian warhead, and it acts as a backdrop for Harry kissing the wife he thought he'd lost. He shields her dear eyes from the flash with a manly hand. Isn't that adorable?

There are memorable moments in True Lies, but they are laid down in the brain by hysterical giggles rather than pulse-racing suspense: Tia Carrere as the lady baddie rather grudgingly moving her handbag to make way for a nuclear warhead . . . Jamie Lee Curtis dropping her gun down the stairs in such a way that it goes on firing and eliminates 400 terrorists . . . Schwarzenegger, asked by his wife whether he has ever killed anyone, while he is under a truth drug and cannot lie, intoning flatly, 'Yes, but they were all bad', still waiting to be told by his director if this is a comedy moment or one of its deep-human-communication- between-a-man-and-a-woman moments . . . the list goes on.

In the whole mess, only Tom Arnold gives anything like value, perhaps because sidekick is well-mapped territory and he stays well inside it. In all other respects, True Lies gets the internationally recognised critical rating of TURKEY (Totally Unnecessary Rubbish - Klose Eur Yse).

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