Steve Howey and Ginger Gonzaga star in CBS's "True Lies." Photo courtesy of CBS
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- The 1994 action comedy True Lies remains controversial, even among its fans, for its gender dynamics. The CBS series adaptation, premiering March 1, avoids some of the film's pitfalls but can't compete with R-rated comedy and blockbuster action.
Harry Tasker (Steve Howey) is still an Omega Sector spy keeping his world-saving job a secret from his wife, Helen (Ginger Gonzaga). The pilot episode vastly simplifies the way Helen finds out her husband is a spy and gets recruited to join him on missions.
In the movie, Harry used agency surveillance equipment to spy on Helen, who was beginning an affair. Many critics still think writer/director James Cameron crossed the line, even though the plot of Harry interrogating Helen and sending her on a seductive mission was adapted directly from the French film La Totale!
The point was presumably Harry was the bad guy in his marriage for manipulating, interrogating and essentially pimping out his wife. Cameron may not have made that clear and the iconography of Arnold Schwarzenegger as heroic may have been insurmountable to achieve that kind of nuance.
The CBS series blows Harry's cover with a far less convoluted or controversial plot. Bad guys interrupt Harry and Helen's Paris vacation so Harry can no longer keep it a secret.
Helen proves herself valuable in a dangerous spot, too. Gonzaga still does a sexy dance in her underwear, like Jamie Lee Curtis' character in the film, but she is alone in her hotel room, not entertaining someone she thinks is an international villain.
This also skips over some of the best parts of the True Lies story. The creative decision to make Helen a spy right away deprives the viewer of the fun of Helen figuring it out and Harry desperately trying to cover up his missions.
They could have gotten a whole season or two out of keeping Helen in the dark. Clearly the creators of the show had no inspiration for that or they wouldn't have rushed to make Helen a spy, too.
One new aspect is the CBS series shows Helen training. The movie essentially concluded after she accepted her husband's double life.
CBS turns True Lies into a generic action show about a husband and wife going on missions together. Ever since Alias, TV action has improved and intensified, but it still can't compete with a Cameron blockbuster.
The show recreates the film's helicopter stunt with someone hanging from the skids, but it's hovering over the ground, not flying over a bridge. Three motorcycles chase a catering van and there are motorcycle stunts with CGI fire.
That sort of action is comparable to NCIS. Spy gadgets like pocket lasers and darts are barely a step up from everyone's personal smartphone at this point.
Harry's team has expanded from Gib and Faisil in the van. There's no Faisil anymore but Omar Benson Miller plays Gib with Luther (Mike O'Gorman) and Maria (Erica Hernandez) backing them up.
This allows Luther and Maria to share some of the load going on their own side missions. They have decent banter and chemistry, but it's hard to ignore that they're there to give Howey and Gonzaga some built-in days off.
Beverly D'Angelo plays the head of Omega Sector, a role that was a Charlton Heston cameo in the movie. She's more involved week to week than Heston was in the film, and maybe she'll have more to do than exposition in the future.
For an action-comedy, the comedy is too generic to stand out. Helen and Harry bicker as she pieces together his past lies as she learns more about his real job. They also discuss household plumbing while on the job.
Helen gets uncomfortable with Harry's sexy international contacts, but he also gets insecure when Helen's exes appear. How many exes could Helen possibly have every week to keep this going?
Though many consider it a classic, the movie is now 29 years old. The title can't mean that much to broadcast viewers in 2023, let alone a broadcast network safe version of it.
True Lies will probably establish its own identity after a few more weekly missions, but it's sure to disappoint anyone still attached to the risqué humor and outrageous action of the film.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.