In the early 1990s, action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger found a project that he absolutely had to be a part of: a proposed remake of the 1991 French adventure-comedy La totale! in which a globe-trotting James Bondian super-spy fights terrorists while convincing his wife that he's nothing but an everyday businessman. It was not like Schwarzenegger to seek a project out like this, but he saw great possibilities for himself in the male lead; and who better to bring the story to than the man who'd made him a star in The Terminator, and had only just put out the actor's biggest box-office hit yet with Terminator 2: Judgment Day? And so James Cameron was brought on to write and direct the film, now called True Lies; and perhaps as a result of this being only the second of his projects that he didn't largely initiate, the film ended up being arguably the least "James Cameron" of all the features he's directed. Aye, even Piranha II: The Spawning has thematic connections to the bulk of the the Cameron filmography. Bear with me.

I haven't mentioned anywhere in this retrospective the director's development of certain pet themes; but the time has finally come. A James Cameron film, as of 1991 - indeed, as of 1997 - is largely typified by the following: a mistrust of the bosses and a sentimental affection for the grunts, which leads in turn to a focus on the daily routines of workers (tremendously obvious in the case of Aliens and The Abyss, but it's present in all of them - even Piranha II spends an inordinate amount of time with teenager Chris Kimbrough and his adventures in piloting around richer, stupider men than himself), and I think we can safely assume this major throughline in the director's work is a result of his own blue-collar background, from truck-driver to filmmaker in but three years; a fascination with technology and how cool it can be, mixed with an absolute fear that hi-tech can turn on you like that; a pronounced wariness about the military; and in several but not all cases, tough-as-nails female protagonists rendered as avenging mama bears. I'm pretty sure that every last one of these points is either ignored or turned right around in True Lies, which presents as its very opening scene Schwarzenegger removing a wet suit to reveal an impeccably crisp tuxedo, thence to a swanky, invitation-only party where he speaks flawless French and Arabic, tangos like a dance champion, and generally seems like the classiest bastard of them all, while still successfully hacking into the host's computer to find possible links to a terror group. Try to imagine, say, Sarah Connor dressed in a gorgeous evening gown, speaking flawless French and sipping champagne.

While you're busy scraping your brains off the computer monitor, I'll push on ahead: everything about True Lies is glossy and fantastic, and not in the way that Cameron's other films are fantastic. At heart, this is a hybrid of a James Bond movie (the opening business with the wet suit comes straight out of Goldfinger) with a screwball romantic comedy; it is by far the most bubbly and lightweight of all the director's films, although there isn't much competition for that title - that's another one of his defining characteristics, his films are all deadly serious, so that even when one character lets out with an action-movie quip, it's more thrilling than amusing (Terminator 2 is maybe an exception to this rule).

It's not really the best fit for the filmmaker. Far be it from me to say that True Lies isn't a fun lark of an action-comedy, but it could stand to be a lot more fun and a lot more larking. The fact of the matter is that Cameron doesn't really know what to do with out-and-out comedy, except stage it the way that would stage a more dramatic moment from any of his other movies, and if it weren't for the game efforts of the cast, I think it's fair to say that a lot more of the funny parts of this film would fall apart than already happens. Because for all his talents, and I think they are estimable, James Cameron doesn't have the touch for the scintillating that a plot like "super-spy hides his job from his wife" requires. This is a Hitchcock kind of story; it is not going to be well-served by the man who gave us the pounding, relentless chase thriller The Terminator, any more than I'd be terribly keen on seeing Hitch make a movie about an implacable, murderous robot.

True Lies also suffers from having essentially three complete plots all rolled together in one 140 minute package. First, we have a spy in some more-secret-than-top-secret U.S. intelligence agency, Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger), who is working with fellow agents "Gib" Gibson (Tom Arnold) and Faisil (future Oscar-nominated writer and George Clooney buddy, Grant Heslov) to track down a new Middle Eastern terrorist group calling itself "Crimson Jihad", while telling his wife-of-15-years Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis, without whose measured and well-timed performance the movie would not work at all) and daughter Dana (a terrifyingly young Eliza Dushku) that he's in computer sales. The second plot essentially puts a hold on the "Crimson Jihad" goings-on, so that Harry can stalk Helen during her apparent romance with a real scuzzball named Simon (Bill Paxton), a car salesman who convinces Helen that he's, get this, a super-spy, in part of a plot to trick her into sleeping with him; Simon's plans all come to naught when Harry and Gib misappropriate agency resources to put a little fear of God into him, after which Harry has the keen idea of blackmailing Helen into doing a "job" for the U.S government, his little attempt to give her some spice and adventure after realising that he's been boring the hell out of her for years. This plot is rudely stopped by the return of the Islamic terrorists, who kidnap Harry and Helen and put them at the center of a race-the-clock nuclear warhead thriller in the Florida Keys.

There's no nice way to say it: True Lies has too damn much content. Starting with The Abyss, there's been a certain tendency towards indulgence in his movies: that film had its meandering ending involving aliens, T2 had all those damned character moments with the kid; and now we find the director in arguably the most self-indulgent movie of his career, and yes, I know that his next project was a 3.25-hour epic that cost more than the GNP of several African countries (and even that was chump change next to the rumored $350-$500 million price tag on Avatar). My point being that True Lies has a whole lot of elements that feel plugged into the movie because they are cool, not because they do much of anything to advance its themes or plot. Indulgences. The very definition of indulgences. And the weird thing is, they don't even particularly feel like James Cameron's indulgences - that's what The Abyss, with its cornucopia of shots of undersea heavy-lifting equipment, was all about. The only thing I can really think to say about True Lies in regards to its director is that, coming off of this third divorce (this time from Kathryn Bigelow), he probably enjoyed the idea of making a fantasy about a awesome sexy dude who has marital problems just like anybody, but whose awesome sexiness makes everything okay; this at any rate would explain why so very much of the second act is given over the story of the Taskers and Helen's non-existent infidelity, and I expect it would also somewhat explain the cringey sexism on display in the whole movie.

This is Cameron's most representationally problematic film: no two ways about it. There's a certain ugly, functional concept of womanhood present onscreen that appears nowhere else in his career, typified by a scene in which Helen thinks she's infiltrating the hotel room of a terrorist financier by posing as a prostitute, but it's actually Harry in the shadows with a Frenchman's voice on tape recorder. He orders her to strip and give him a sexy dance; she complies, while looking for a chance to to plant a bug. Of course, since she's a legal secretary and neither a prostitute nor a double agent, she fumbles about and falls in some slapsticky gags, and while the scene is amusing, it's amusing in a really uncomfortable way. A man forcing his wife to pretend that she's a prostitute for an invented terrorist, played as a gag: there's a really dark undercurrent there.

Of course, the idea that the film is also racist is fairly old hat at this point: and to be sure, there's a lot of gaudy representation of Middle Easterners that seems all the more distasteful in 2009 than it did in 1994 - though unfortunately, it is is no rarer in 2009 than it was in 1994, and while I agree that True Lies has a racist tinge to it, it's not terribly exceptional or outrageous in this regard.

I'd like to get back, though, to something I was saying before, which is that Cameron doesn't have a good handle on making a silly spy film; maybe if he did, if his touch was just a bit flimsier, the sexism and racism would be easier to swallow or ignore outright. But at any rate, he just can't make a comedy. No worries; a lot of people can't. But it does hurt True Lies that it keeps wobbling from breezy, matinee-serial adventures with terrorists in some scenes, with tremendously consequence-free violence (the film literally romanticises a nuclear explosion in one late shot), right over to incredibly nasty, visceral action sequences. The film never quite settles on a tone: in the broadest sense, it's always "fun", but the exact nature of that "fun" is hard to pin down, and sometimes self-contradictory.

The hell of it all is, on balance I like the movie. When Cameron can keep away from the outright screwball stuff, and in the scenes where the gender issues are most muted, True Lies can be an awfully playful '80s-style action picture; probably Schwarzenegger's last good outing in that mode. It remains the case that as far as explodey setpieces go, Cameron has a tremendous eye for what is rousing and exciting; he also uses Harrier jets in this film to just about the finest effect that they have ever been used, in terms of sheer army toy spectacle. Even as a frothy action-entertainment, I could have done with True Lies being a good deal shorter, but this fact remains: it is an entertaining frothy entertainment. I just wish that this time around, Cameron's explosions and tech-ogling camera work had been wrapped in less obnoxious packaging.