Can ‘True Lies’ TV Series Fix the Biggest Controversy From the James Cameron Movie?

CBS confirmed to the Television Critics Association on Sept. 9 that its True Lies series is going into production. The 1994 James Cameron film was a hit for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, though widely considered a problematic one. So can a CBS TV series in 2021 fix those controversial issues? 

James Cameron's True Lies: Harry and Helen hug
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis | Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

True Lies starred Schwarzenegger as Harry Tasker, a spy keeping his action-packed life from his wife Helen (Curtis) and daughter (Eliza Dushku). When Harry learned Helen was seeing used car salesman Simon (Bill Paxton), Harry and his partner Gib (Tom Arnold) used their spy resources to track Helen. 

This led to a scene in which Harry and Gib kidnap and interrogate Helen after catching her on a date with Simon. Harry then concocts a scheme to give her a spy mission and show her some excitement. 

Harry’s fake mission leads to him playing a shadowy figure, ordering Helen to do a striptease for him. Curtis’s slapstick striptease is both the sexiest and funniest moment in the film. However, the setup carries a lot of baggage.

In 1994, reviews from The National Review, The Los Angeles Times and many others criticized True Lies for its misogynistic attitude towards Helen. Racism was also an issue since the villains were stereotypical Middle-Eastern terrorists, as EW reported. It will be an easy fix to give the show more relevant villains. The gender politics are trickier. 

True Lies: Harry rescues a captured Helen
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis | Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

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That Harry’s plan ends with him attempting to seduce Helen raises more problematic questions. Helen hits him with a telephone because she refuses to commit adultery, even for her country. What was Harry’s endgame there? If she had gone through with it, wouldn’t it have been worse than her dabbling with Simon?

True Lies was an American remake of the French movie La Totale! The plot follows the same beats. The Harry character (Francois played by Thierry Lhermitte)’s adventures are smaller scale than James Cameron’s action set pieces, but the adultery subplot plays out exactly the same. So if True Lies is sexist, so is La Totale! Yes, Cameron could have changed anything in the adaptation, and he did add the striptease.

It all depends on how you read the film’s attitude towards Harry. The point of True Lies is that Harry is wrong for treating Helen like a terrorist. The point is that being an international hero in the intelligence world is bad for Harry’s marriage, a topic the later film Mr. and Mrs. Smith also explored. Amazon is developing a Mr. and Mrs. Smith TV series

CBS is turning the Arnold Schwarzenegger hit True Lies into a TV show
Arnold Schwarzenegger | Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

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Some critics felt True Lies was cheering on Harry’s behavior. If you see the film’s interrogation scene as “Yeah, get the cheating bitch, Harry!” then that misogynistic. If the film lets you see making his wife strip and plotting to have sex with her under coercion as romantic then that’s dangerous. 

As a comedy, the intention seems to be of course Harry’s wrong. Harry is such a bad husband that his solution to a straying spouse is to go hardcore action hero on her. His character arc is to learn to trust Helen with his secrets, and let her into his world. It’s also an absurd action-comedy in which Harry and Helen foil terrorists together. 

At best, the film can go either way. The fact that recent re-evaluations, like The Guardian’s 2009 piece, still read True Lies as backing up Harry’s misogyny shows that the film is ambiguous enough to fuel debate decades later. In EW’s 1994 report, the National Organization for Women did not consider the movie sexist. 

Curtis has called True Lies “maybe the best thing I’ll ever get to do.” She has a point. Curtis brings powerful drama to Helen’s interrogation, and she owns that strip tease scene. 

In 2018, Dushku alleged that stunt coordinator Joel Kramer sexually assaulted her while making True Lies. The Hollywood Reporter and other outlets picked up Dushku’s Facebook post. Cameron responded during a Television Critics Association session, according to /Film. Dushku’s real life trauma supersedes any fictional issues.

In tackling the narrative of True Lies, CBS should keep a few things in mind with their adaptation. In 2021 it is not necessary to do a faithful remake of La Totale! The premise of True Lies is simply that a woman finds out her husband is a spy. There are an infinite number of permutations that can take, and they can adapt to the 2021 incarnation of the intelligence community.

True Lies: Arnold Schwarzenegger sits in a Harrier cockpit
Arnold Schwarzenegger | Tony Savino/Sygma via Getty Images

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The change in world politics were the reason Cameron gave for never making a True Lies 2. During the press junket for Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron told reporters that after 9/11, he no longer found terrorism an amusing subject for a domestic comedy. Tom Arnold never gave up though. 

There was a previous attempt to turn True Lies into a series for ABC, too. The 2010 development never made it to air despite rumors that John Cena was attached, according to What’s Playing via CinemaBlend.

If CBS’s True Lies is woke, as it were, it should certainly not involve sexual manipulation. Hopefully, since #MeToo, we no longer laugh at tricking someone into having sex. In the movie, the joke should have been how wrong Harry was to think that was a romantic idea, but allowing it to go as far as it did may have been a mistake. 

They can have Helen discover Harry is a spy without contemplating adultery. However, the idea that their marriage is in trouble is important to True Lies. It would be hard to imagine the stakes being high enough if their marriage isn’t compromised. 

A lot will be determined by the approach CBS takes with True Lies. CBS tends to do episodic procedural series. So if they want to set up the whole premise in a pilot, that mean condensing a 141 minute movie in 45 minutes. They can drop a lot of problematic tangents that way. 

True Lies: Harry chases a terrorist on horseback
Arnold Schwarzenegger | by Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

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That would mean True Lies would be Helen and Harry on weekly adventures. That could be fun, but might not fully capture True Lies. It could also be Harry’s weekly attempts to hide his adventures from his family. If that’s the angle, they have a chance to invent new ways for Harry to navigate his double life, avoiding the movie’s subplot in the process. 

Cameron is an executive producer of the CBS True Lies series along with McG. Matt Nix wrote and Anthony Hemingway will direct the pilot, which was originally developed for Disney+.​​ So far Steve Howey is cast as the lead, though CBS did not confirm whether they are keeping the names Harry and Helen Tasker.