As James Cameron continues his victory lap as re-throned king of the world with both Avatar: The Way of Water and Titanic making more and more millions at the box office, here comes a striking reminder that not everything he touches turns to gold. Granted, it might only be the lightest of grazes with just a token executive producer credit but the finished product is so thoroughly junky that even the mildest of associations is the kind of embarrassment one would want scrubbed from both IMDb page and televisual history at large.
It didn’t have to be this way. Conceptually, converting his boisterously entertaining 1994 action comedy True Lies into a TV series isn’t entirely ill-advised; the loose set-up of mixing marital strife with high-octane action was already enough to inspire 2005’s equally enjoyable Mr and Mrs Smith, itself receiving a more prestige-y small screen transfer later this year courtesy of Donald Glover. (One could argue the film also led to Date Night, Knight and Day and a flurry of other genre-mixing crowd-pleasers.) At one point Cameron was set to take a larger role before retreating into the blue and handing over the baton to a team that promptly drops it, falls over and lands flat on their faces. What once felt zippy and slick (if a little dated with its gender politics) now feels leaden and cheap, a cruel reminder of the fun we once had almost 30 years ago.
We’re most definitely not in the multiplex any more and have instead been tornadoed into the washed out, low-rent world of network TV, specifically CBS, home to NCIS, CSI, FBI and SWAT. True Lies is every bit as anonymous as any one of those or their many spin-offs, taking a familiar brand name and overlaying it on to a dusty blueprint. The difficulty with taking a $100m-budgeted action flick (True Lies was in fact the first movie ever to cost that much) and remaking it on a fraction of the cost is that we’re automatically forced into comparing and contrasting, the cheaper one inevitably not faring quite as well within a flashy genre such as this (one of the many reasons ABC’s Marvel shows were hard to stomach). But understandable budget downgrade aside, TV’s True Lies is made with such lack of interest in style or well-choreographed action that it makes the differences that much easier to spot, aiming for globetrotting sleekness but giving us Atlanta-sleepwalking blandness instead.
The set-up is initially similar. Harry Tasker (Steve Howey, who is no Arnie) is a suburban computer salesman keeping his life as a spy secret from his wife Helen (Ginger Gonzaga, who is no Jamie Lee Curtis). She’s progressively bored with married life, craving the spark they once had. The show deviates after Helen finds out and then becomes a trained-up member of Harry’s elite team with the resulting episodes sending them both on missions while trying to keep up the facade back home. Hilarity doesn’t ensue.
It makes sense for the extension to push the plot forward in this way (a series based around him keeping the secret and her almost finding out would have been patience-testing) but the theoretically ambitious 007-adjacent scenarios the pair are sent on are all drably designed, punishingly unexciting and devoid of any juice, Matt Nix, the show’s creator, never managing to find that sweet spot of propulsive action and quippy comedy. It’s no one’s fault in particular and rather everyone’s all at once with uninspired placeholder dialogue (“You know what your dad says: computers don’t sell themselves”) performed by two lacklustre leads who lack chemistry and comedic timing, underselling material that really needed the oversell (the presence of Beverly D’Angelo, someone who actually knows what she’s doing, as Harry’s boss is a brief balm).
The film-to-TV pipeline is as close to clogged as ever (this year we have Fatal Attraction, Grease, Dead Ringers and the aforementioned Mr and Mrs Smith on the way) but True Lies has shown us why execs should be less reliant on looking back, exemplifying the sheer, maddening pointlessness of doing it just because. Misfiring as action, comedy and reason for mass employment, it reminded me of Jeff Goldblum’s ever-relevant Jurassic Park adage that overlords are too busy being “preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”.
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