I have almost always found that critical examination of a work has caused me to enjoy it more, rather than less. I think this is particularly true of “high art”, but to a large degree I think “pulp” improves with critique. An example would be that I’ve posted on how camp as an analytic lense has been used to effectively rescue works formerly lost to enjoyment, and similarly when discussing different critical approaches.
Well, the exception in recent times has been Vic Johns’ feminist critique of True Lies; which I was reminded of at ‘s birthday drinks. The critique is, basically, that Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a bored and neglected wife whose relationship with her husband is repaired through what is essentially a rape fantasy. By being kidnapped and forced into the role of prostitute she discovers that she has a sexual side, and forgives and then reconciles with her husband who put her into that position.
In those terms, it’s understandably disagreeable, though I think that its intent is probably good. It is supposed, I think, to be a story of rekindled love through honesty, and ultimately through equality.
This perspective was the second major revision I’d made as a response to closer analysis. The first was pointing out to me that the spy stuff was just a foil for the love story.
Despite this critique, well founded though it is, I have actually still found the movie interesting and enjoyable in a couple of subsequent viewings. In particular, it is interesting to observe the co-dependence and inequality of Harry Tasker (Arnold Swarzenegger) and Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold). Gibs is definitely in a service relationship, rather than an equal partner. In a lot of ways he is a rival for Helen, and there are numerous small jokes to that effect scattered throughout the text. There is no ultimate equalization of that relationship, at the end of the film Gibs is still in the van, surveiling, where Helen is now inside the mission with Harry. Yet, it is fairly clear that Harry cannot function effectively without support from Gibs, whereas, I do not think that the obverse is necessarily true.
It is a film that works along similar lines to True Lies. Through the revelation of secret lives the protagonists form a true relationship, one that is open and once again loving. There are, just as in True Lies, a large number of well-staged action sequences and the whole film is shot through with humorous touches to keep the mood light and the pace quick.
However, this time, out of the magic of the cinema, I found myself almost perpetually bored. It was a real struggle to remain engaged for the entire film. And that interested me: what was different? What was, bluntly, wrong?
This time Jane Smith’s (Angelina Jolie) almost total supremacy leapt out at me. In a film where the two protagonists are competitive by nature, she is the winner. She is better trained, better equipped, has better stats, and is demonstrated as more effective at every opportunity. And not subtly either. John Smith (Brad Pitt) may have killed “high 50s, low 60s”. Jane has killed 312. It is clearly intended to be a feature of the narrative – the characters themselves discuss the problem, where John describes their marriage as something she treated as a job: something to be planned and executed, not lived. Jane describes John as not even showing up for it, clearly she does all the work.
Something else I noticed was that there was a lot more exposition than I had at first realized. In fact, almost every scene is structured either as a show-piece scene, or exposition. There are actually very few scenes where there is anything notably at stake as far as the audience is concerned. Conflicts are not really conflicts, but opportunities to display the characters’ prowess or are played for laughs. In real terms, all that changes over the course of the film is that the protagonists are aware of the secret that the audience begins the film knowing: they are both assassins. The latent power games evident from the opening shots of their domestic bliss are now express, not subtext. He hasn’t accepted his role as second best, she hasn’t lost the need to win.
Which leads me back around to recognizing what it is that I enjoy about True Lies: everything is at stake. Of course, it has the same inevitable happy ending as all blockbusters, but there are numerous junctures in the film where we are uncertain about how scenes will play out in detail, where we can’t exactly predict the present meander en route to the happy end. I think this can’t be said about Mr and Mrs Smith, where the structure and set-up of every scene lead directly to its predictable conclusion.
Does that now ruin Mr and Mrs Smith while only partially redeeming True Lies? Sadly, I think so. I can see more clearly now how the creative team of Mr and Mrs Smith sought to use the medium of an action movie to explore relationships; but I can also see more clearly now all the ways in which they failed to do this.