“La Totale!” (1991)
Written by Simon Michaël, Didier Kaminka and director Claude Zidi, “La Totale!” was a French action-comedy involving a seemingly dull telecommunications employee, named François Voisin (Thierry Lhermitte) who misses a surprise 40th birthday party from his bored wife Hélène (Miou-Miou), while planting a surveillance device during a dangerous mission. François, of course, is a spy, who leads a double life unbeknownst to his spouse. Meanwhile, Hélène begins a relationship with suspected spy Simon (Michel Boujenah), who, in actuality, is a pathetic used car salesman pretending to be a spy.
Things reach a head when François suspects Hélène of having an affair with Simon, which leads to their kidnapping by an all-too-real arms dealer, forcing François to come clean with Hélène. François teams up with his surprisingly resourceful wife, as they thwart the arms dealers and destroy a football stadium in the process. The film concludes with François celebrating his 41st birthday a year later, just as he and Hélène locate sleazy Simon—who’s still posing as a spy when he’s confronted by the real deal.
More a breezy, comedic farce/caper than over-the-top blockbuster, that would soon change when James Cameron (“The Terminator,” “Titanic”) got ahold of the rights to “La Totale!” and decided to do a mega-budget, high-octane, very Hollywood remake…
“True Lies” (1994)
The James Cameron remake of “True Lies” kicks the action quotient up quite a bit while remaining somewhat faithful to the general story of “La Totale!” The 1994 movie reimagines François and Hélèn Voisin as Harry (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis), respectively. “Omega Sector” spy Harry pretends to be a boring computer salesman, while his wife Helen is a truly-bored Washington DC secretary.
Harry returns from a death-defying mission to learn he’s missed his birthday party, thrown by Helen and his teenaged daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku). Harry’s ‘dull’ job and routine absences drive adventure-seeking Helen to begin a clandestine relationship with sleazy Simon (Bill Paxton); a used car salesman posing as a spy to get women. Fearing Helen might be cheating on him, Harry employs his Omega Sector teammates Al “Gib” Gibson (Tom Arnold) and Faisil (Grant Heslov) to surveil Simon—only to learn Simon’s a harmless poser. After a phony sting operation designed to out and humiliate Simon, Harry anonymously interrogates Helen through a one-way mirror in order to learn the truth. Satisfied she’s being honest about her fidelity, Harry and Gib then give Helen an ‘assignment’ to seduce an arms dealer (Harry, posing in silhouette).
Real-life Middle East terrorists then crash the scene and kidnap the Taskers—whisking them off to the Florida Keys, where they reveal a stolen Russian nuclear warhead set to go off in a matter of hours. With Harry coming clean to her, Helen finds herself unexpectedly drafted by Omega Sector. Under a shower of gunfire, she and Harry forcibly escape the island—which goes up in a mushroom cloud—only to learn afterward that surviving terrorists have kidnapped Dana. The climax sees Harry rescuing his daughter in a Harrier jet while killing the last remaining jihadists. A coda sees Harry and Helen locating and confronting the cowardly Simon, who’s still posing as a spy—before he wets his pants and runs away.
Note: The James Cameron-directed remake (which he also wrote the adapted screenplay for) has become the most popular version of the story, giving Schwarzenegger a more debonair role, while catapulting horror/comedy veteran costar Jamie Lee Curtis into the realm of big budget action movies, in which she excels; delivering one of her most memorable roles. Comedian actor/writer Tom Arnold also delivers as Albert Gibson, Schwarzenegger’s wiseass sidekick. Even today, the action sequences are still spectacular; produced on the cusp between the optical and digital FX ages, harnessing the best of both. However, the movie’s repeated depictions of most non-caucasian foreigners as automatically evil sours the film, particularly in light of post 9/11 Islamophobia. This pernicious racism of the film—something not really present in the French original—casts an unfortunate shadow over this otherwise dynamic, exciting and even romantic action-comedy.
“True Lies” (2023)
Enter the 2023 CBS/Paramount+ reboot TV series. Not surprisingly, the first thing this reboot addresses is the 1994 film’s negative racial/ethnic stereotypes, employing a broader, more inclusive ensemble cast. Omega Sector operative Harry Tasker (Steve Howey) no longer has a curiously-unexplained Austrian accent, and he’s now married to a Filipina born-Helen (Ginger Cozanga), who’s been upgraded from DC secretary to linguistics professor—yet she still seems to be responsible for most of the Tasker household’s domestic chores (yikes). Ginger Cozanga shines in the role. Steve Howey is a bit more of a blank slate as Harry, lacking Schwarzenegger’s confident, yet sometimes goofy charisma.
In the pilot episode, Harry takes bored wife Helen with him on a Paris ‘vacation’ (an Omega Sector assignment) where Helen is accidentally drawn into her husband’s 17-year double life as a spy, much as we see in previous versions. This forces a radical rethinking of their marriage, as Omega Sector is now forced to incorporate Helen into their ranks to avoid losing Harry, one of their most successful operatives. Naturally, Helen’s linguistic gifts make her a valued asset to the team, but she is also forced to accept the less glamorous aspects of this new life, including the deadly use of force.
Note: I find Helen’s excuse of fitness classes giving her exceptionally advanced fighting skills to be a bit of a stretch—just saying.
Next up on the list of changed elements includes Harry’s best friend and teammate, Albert Gibson Jr. (Omar Benson Miller), who’s been recast from comedian Tom Arnold to more of a young Forest Whitaker-type, who also happens to be Harry’s immediate supervisor now, instead of just “the guy in the van.” No longer the nonstop jokester of the 1994 movie, this new “Gib” still has a sense of humor, but it’s less personality-based and more situational. As team leader, this Gib feels the weight of the overall mission success directly on his shoulders, leaving him unable to embrace the flippancy of Tom Arnold’s model. Omar Benson Miller does a nice job as the boss who’s still doing his best to be ‘one of the guys.’
Another major change comes in eliminating the other ‘van guy’ Faisil (the 1994 movie’s only positive non-caucasian character), who was the movie’s gadgets guy, who also knew his way around a machine gun, as we saw in the movie’s climax. The new version sees a pair of characters—Luther and Maria—filling the role(s). Maria (Erica Hernandez) is a model-gorgeous Latina, while Luther (Mike O’Gorman) is more of an Alan Tudyk-type. The pair had a romance during a previous mission, which left both with lingering feelings afterward. Their unresolved past gets in the way of missions on more than one occasion, as we see them constantly sussing out their feelings—usually during firefights. Over time, their constant bickering and lack of focus makes one wonder why Gib hasn’t simply reassigned them to other teams…
This leads me to another issue with this reboot; having ex-lovers Maria and Luther on the team detracts from Helen and Harry’s marriage, which should be the central focus of the show, as it was in the cinematic versions. This crowded (and vaguely incestuous) Omega Sector ‘team’ feels less like a squad of lethal super-spies and more like the dysfunctional cast of “Friends” being sent to save the world every week. While I get that an action-comedy requires a certain amount of zinger-filled squabbling, it often reaches a point where you wish this team would just focus on their damn jobs. The high school shenanigans between Maria and Luther makes me yearn for the cool detachment of Peter Graves’ “Jim Phelps” and his team from the old “Mission: Impossible” TV series (1966-1973). The situation only gets worse when Luther is given a new love interest with an Omega Sector lab technician, hinting toward a fruitless love triangle.
Taking the place of the late Charlton Heston (no easy feat) as the head of Omega Sector (which is still fronted by the Telonyx Computer Company) is Beverly D’Angelo, who steps into the semi-regular role of Director Susan Trilby (nee: Spencer Trilby). Lacking Heston’s eyepatch and gruff demeanor, D’Angelo (“National Lampoon’s Vacation” movies) comes at the role from a different angle—playing it more like Patricia Arquette’s eerily-cool “Harmony Cobel” in the workplace sci-fi dramedy “Severance.” Taking Heston’s place is a very tall order, and while D’Angelo does what she can with the material, the role is somewhat generically written. Susan Trilby lacks the fire of Spencer Trilby, who only had one scene, yet left quite an impression. This new take on Trilby makes me miss Judi Dench’s “M” from the Bond movies.
Now we come to the Tasker children. Dating-age teenaged daughter Dana (Annabella Didion) is no longer an only child; she now has a brother named Jake (Lucas Jaye), who is given little-to-nothing to do for most of the series. Dana, however, is given a boyfriend named Max (Charlie Nix); a geeky hacker who nearly started World War 3 just to make a point (“Unrelated Parents,”). Much like the movie’s Dana, this version of the character is also a typically-bored teen who thinks her parents exist solely to curtail her social life.
The end of the season (and series) sees Dana and Jake finally learning the truth about their parents (“Lying Truths,” Parts 1, 2), as Dana tracks boyfriend Max down to an abandoned restaurant where he’s assisting her mother’s team in locating Dana’s abducted father. Learning both her parents and boyfriend are covert operatives predictably rocks Dana’s world (though not quite as dramatically as when 1994’s Dana saw her father rescuing her atop a skyscraper at the controls of a Harrier jet fighter).
Note: While Dana is given a decent arc in the ten episode run of the show, poor Jake is a fifth wheel. I certainly get why the series would want to expand the characters (and mythology) of the original story for TV, but fewer characters and tighter focus might’ve been better.
There were a few interesting guest stars in the short run of this series, including Keith David (“The Thing,” “They Live,” “Something About Mary”), Matthew Lillard (“Scream,” the “Scooby-Doo” movies), and one of the cast members from 1994’s “True Lies,” Tom Arnold.
Keith David is well-cast as Albert Gibson Sr., the father of current Omega Sector team leader Al Gibson Jr (“Independent Dependents”). There is the predictable tension between them, of course, as architectural engineer (and former Omega Sector operative) Al Sr. had high hopes for his son, whom he’d hoped would go on to Caltech or MIT, instead of becoming another ‘van guy’ for Omega Sector.
Note: I had the pleasure of meeting actor Keith David at CreepIEcon 2022. David also lent his considerable voice talents to roles in “Coraline” and “The Princess and the Frog” (both 2009). I was glad to see him get a role in this series, despite my overall disappointment with the series itself.
Matthew Lillard played a perfect “Shaggy” in the two “Scooby-Doo” live-action movies (2002-2004) and the actor brings his penchant for unorthodox characters into his role as “The Wolf” (“Rival Companions”), playing a sociopathic, misunderstood assassin who’s unable to feel any emotional connection to killing. This condition is insensitively played for laughs here (much like Sheldon’s autism in “Big Bang Theory”), while also being exploited by Omega Sector itself. The Wolf soon forms a genuine connection with Helen, spurring jealousy and concern from Harry, who isn’t keen on his wife bonding with a cold-blooded killer.
We finally see the series employ a bit of stunt-casting by using the 1994 movie’s Tom Arnold as a former Omega Sector operative named “Arnie,” who’s since become a survivalist recluse upon retirement (“Bitter Sweethearts”). Turns out Arnie’s biggest problem isn’t his own dangerous, eccentric behavior but rather his heartbreak over losing the love of his life—fellow retired Omega Sector operative Sharon (Kate Vernon, from 2004’s “Battlestar Galactica”). The former spies emerge from retirement to help the current Omega Sector learn who’s targeting past and present team members. Arnie and Sharon disappear together during a climatic firefight.
“So far this is not blowing my skirt up, gentlemen…”
The TV reboot does a nice job of addressing some of the 1994 movie’s most grievous mistakes, such as adding roles for people of color and women in heroic roles for a change. However, this larger new ensemble cast also takes away from the tighter core of characters from the two film versions.
The new Harry, played by Steve Howey, is much more generic than Arnold Schwarzenegger, with less presence and charisma than his 1994 cinematic counterpart (I found myself even missing the former Harry’s inexplicable Austrian accent). Placing another bickering, ex-romantic pair in the Omega Sector’s van crew (Luther and Maria) is a misstep, as it dilutes the focus of Harry and Helen’s marriage with unnecessary paralleling. Adding a son to the Tasker family was another mistake, as ‘Jake’ is given little of significance to do in the short, ten-episode series’ run.
On the plus side, the new “Gib” (Omar Benson Miller) is excellent, giving more authority to the wiseass sidekick character played by Tom Arnold in the 1994 film (though, in fairness, Tom Arnold’s “Gib” was hilarious). I also liked the new Helen, well-played by “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” costar Ginger Gonzaga. This Helen contributes a lot more to the team as a linguistics expert-professor, instead of a mousy secretary (the same ‘upgrade’ given to “Uhura” in 21st century Star Trek), though her expert combat training coming from suburban exercise classes is a major stretch.
Unfortunately, the show’s “Mission: Impossible”-lite stories, petty team squabbling and touring company cast just didn’t have the staying power to go the distance. All the same, there were a few good ideas and good intentions in this reboot, which was officially cancelled in May of this year, just when the Tasker kids finally learned about the family business in the season/series finale (“Lying Truths: Waking Dreams, Part 2”).
As Schwarzenegger famously said in the 1994 film: “You’re fired.”
Where To Watch
“True Lies” the TV series’ first and only season is available to stream exclusively on Paramount+. The 1994 movie “True Lies” can also be streamed on Paramount+, or rented/purchased from YouTube Premium and Amazon (prices vary); the 1994 film is also tentatively set for a BluRay release later this year. For completists, “La Totale!” is available for purchase on DVD only from Amazon (prices vary by seller).