One of the biggest blockbuster hits of 1994, and a movie still well-remembered and well-liked by most viewers almost three decades later, True Lies is a sad case of a piece of popular art that has fallen victim to its creator’s indifference toward it. Now seventeen years into the Blu-ray era, True Lies remains absent from the format, and its last DVD release in North America was frankly a disgrace. By most accounts, that may be James Cameron’s own fault.
Unlike most directors, who lose control of their films as soon as theaters start playing them, Cameron has enough clout in the industry to demand the right of oversight and approval for any new home video releases of his work. While most of his catalog has been issued (and reissued, sometimes several times over) on Blu-ray or 4K Ultra HD, the filmmaker has repeatedly dragged his feet on both this title and 1989’s The Abyss. In the case of True Lies specifically, some statements he’s made over the years suggest that Cameron may not care to revisit the film anymore.
|Year of Release:||1994|
|Available On:||Apple TV+|
Produced as Cameron’s next project after setting the world box office on fire with the monstrous success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies was the director’s attempt to out-James Bond James Bond. By the start of the 1990s, the 007 movie franchise was in decline with audiences, and its last installment (1989’s Licence to Kill) had been its first to lose money theatrically. Cameron, in his trademark arrogance, sensed an opportunity to step in and fill that void.
Ostensibly based on a modest 1991 French comedy called La totale! (that it barely resembles), True Lies was very clearly designed as an action/spy thriller in the James Bond mold, but blown up to JAMES CAMERON proportions as a big-budget, bombastic rollercoaster thrill ride. The film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a boring suburban computer salesman (a hilariously ridiculous conceit on its face) who is secretly, unbeknownst even to his own wife and teenage daughter, an elite government agent and America’s top weapon against terrorist threats.
The movie is hugely entertaining, filled with staggering action set-pieces that still dazzle in their audacity all these years later. Schwarzenegger is in peak form as an action hero and handles the light comedy equally well. Jamie Lee Curtis (now an Oscar winner!) makes a perfect foil against him as the oblivious housewife whose passion for her marriage is reignited after learning her husband’s secret. The cast also features fun supporting turns from Bill Paxton, Tia Carrere, and screen legend Charlton Heston. Cameron even manages to elicit a surprisingly appealing comedic performance from Tom Arnold, which is a a difficult trick for any director to pull off.
Some aspects, unfortunately, haven’t aged well. The story has a pretty strong sexist streak that’s a little difficult to overlook today. Whether that’s offset by how much fun Curtis seems to be having on screen (even during a centerpiece scene that’s quite demeaning to her character) is an argument I’m probably not qualified to make. During its release, the film was also criticized for stereotyping Middle Eastern characters as terrorists. Cameron got rather defensive about that, arguing that his inclusion of one non-terrorist supporting role (played by future Oscar-winning producer Grant Heslov) negated that complaint. I’m not sure that it does, but am, again, not really in a position to make that judgement.
Personally, I feel that the movie’s considerable strengths outweigh whatever problems it may have. At the time, True Lies did everything a James Bond movie was supposed to do, but bigger and better. It was another smash hit for James Cameron, and deservedly so. Looking back on it decades and countless repeat viewings later, the movie is still a total blast.
In any case, Cameron basically turned his back on True Lies after the real-life terrorist events in September of 2001. In an interview he gave in 2009, the director said: “[S]ince September 11, I’ve never felt comfortable generating laughs with nuke-toting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. True Lies, even though it has a cautionary thread underneath the pratfalls, is in a strange way a product of a more innocent time.”
While his wording there may have been diplomatic, and he didn’t outright say that he doesn’t like the movie anymore, his actions suggest that, at the very least, the film is very low on his list of priorities. During the early 2000s, Cameron reportedly stopped 20th Century Fox from reissuing the movie in a planned Five Star Collection DVD edition. Later attempts to remaster the movie for Blu-ray likewise stalled out due to his refusal to approve the work. Officially, the filmmaker’s excuse was that he’d been “too busy” to sign-off on any video masters the studio prepared – even during a good several-year stretch after Avatar where he didn’t seem to have much going on before ramping up work on Avatar 2.
Whatever the real reason may be, plans to bring True Lies to Blu-ray have repeatedly fallen apart. This has happened so often, and so consistently, I can’t help treating any new rumors of its impending release with extreme skepticism.
True Lies has long been a top-requested title on countless fans’ Blu-ray wish lists, and a certain home video rumor mill has been promising that a Blu-ray edition is right around the corner, no more than a couple months out, for over a decade running. A little stink got raised at the end of last year when James Cameron offhandedly implied to a French reporter that a new 4K release might be coming in March 2023. Yet here we are a couple months after that, and Disney (current owners of the 20th Century Fox catalog) have made no such announcement. Nor has Cameron clarified his remarks.
For most American viewers’ purposes, the last relevant home video release of True Lies happened back in 1999 on a DVD with a standard-definition, non-anamorphic letterbox transfer recycled from Laserdisc. That disc looked substandard even at the time and has aged terribly.
Technically, a 1080i high-definition copy of the film was released in 2003 on the short-lived D-Theater (D-VHS) format, but so few people ever adopted D-Theater that its existence is effectively a trivia footnote.
The high-def master used for that tape never made its way to Blu-ray (at least, not in North America), but has popped up on streaming services from time to time, usually for just a brief run before vanishing again. Reportedly, it streamed on Hulu in 2022. By the time I heard about that in March of this year (around the spinoff TV series’ premiere on CBS) and tried to check it out, Hulu had inexplicably replaced the high-def master with a dreadful standard-def copy in the wrong aspect ratio. That didn’t last long, and the movie was removed from the service shortly afterward.
As I’m writing this article, True Lies has very recently returned to streaming across several different platforms, including Apple TV+, MGM+, Paramount+, Peacock, and Tubi. Some of them (but not all!) are streaming it in high-definition. Apple TV+ says that it’s only available through May 31, 2023, just a couple weeks from now. I won’t be surprised if it leaves the others at the same time. Before that happens, I made a point of watching the movie and sampling it on every service I could.
In my testing, the best option I found was on Apple TV+, and the worst – without question – on Peacock. Lest anyone get their hopes up, let me be clear that none of the copies currently available on streaming come from the supposed 4K remaster that James Cameron hinted at.
The Best: Apple TV+ and Paramount+
Apple TV+ and Paramount+ both stream True Lies from the same 1080p high-definition source at the film’s correct 2.39:1 aspect ratio with 5.1 audio. The master appears rather old – and Paramount’s heavy compression doesn’t do it many favors. The picture is a bit soft, with very little film grain visible. Both contrasts and colors are flat. For those who care about such things, blues in the photography have also been given a frustrating teal push. All that being the case, it’s entirely watchable and I had a great time with it.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack has very energetic surround usage with bullets zinging through the rear speakers in every action scene, but bass is pretty light and gunshots could use more kick. I remember this movie being bassier back in the days when I watched it on Laserdisc.
Because I subscribe to Paramount+ through the Amazon Channels system, I was also able to test the movie using the Amazon Prime app. It looks much the same there from what I could tell, with perhaps marginally better compression, but I only sampled a few scenes. Any differences between using Paramount+ directly or through Amazon seemed mostly negligible to me.
Apple TV+ streams at a higher bit rate, yielding a slightly better resolved image with fewer noticeable compression artifacts. I attempted to do a screenshot comparison between Paramount and Apple, but the picture from Apple TV+ when viewed through a web browser was significantly more compressed and softer than what I saw on my home theater screen (whereas Paramount+ looks comparable from both the web and my media streamer). Because I feel that the Apple TV+ screenshot was misleading, I’ve elected to discard it from the comparisons on this page. Know that the actual picture when playing the movie from that service looks close to and perhaps slightly better than the below examples from Paramount+.
The Adequate: MGM+
MGM+ also uses the same master for True Lies that Apple TV+ and Paramount+ do, but the video is significantly more filtered and softer through that platform. In many scenes, it barely looks high-definition at all. If anything, the screenshot I was able to grab looks better than the movie actually did on my home theater screen.
Expand the above comparison to its largest size on your screen and take a close look at skin pore detail on Schwarzenegger’s forehead and face. While Paramount may have some dodgy compression at times, the picture is sharper and details like those are resolved in better clarity. The same applies to Apple TV+
Considering that, in addition to its mediocre video, the MGM+ app is limited to only 2.0 audio on any of my streaming devices, I’m inclined to say that this would be my last resort if I couldn’t watch through either Apple TV+ or Paramount+.
The Worst: Peacock and Tubi
Whatever you do, don’t watch True Lies on either Peacock or Tubi if you can do any of the above options instead. Both services are streaming the movie only in standard-definition, sourced from the old non-anamorphic DVD master.
Of the two, Tubi has at least retained the movie’s correct aspect ratio. However, because the source is so low resolution, the picture is shrunken down into a small window with black bars on all sides. It looks awful on a number of levels, size being just one of them. Tubi is also an ad-supported service, so you can expect the film to get interrupted by periodic commercial breaks.
Peacock, meanwhile, has taken that same standard-def, shrunken picture and stretched it all the way to the left and right edges of the screen. This is exactly what I saw on Hulu earlier in the year. The geometric distortion is horrible. The whole movie occupies a tiny, squished strip in the middle of your screen. It’s unwatchable, and embarrassing. Don’t even bother trying it.
Even the best of these options leaves room for improvement. If the rumored 4K remaster should ever actually surface, I’d expect better results than any of these streaming copies. But having been burned on so many of these rumors in the past, I don’t put any faith at all in the latest round. I’ll be extremely surprised if True Lies really does get released on Blu-ray or 4K Ultra HD anytime soon.
In the meantime, a decent – if imperfect – streaming copy will provide a very enjoyable viewing experience, so long as you choose the right platform to watch it. Of those I tested, Apple TV+ looks the best to me, with Paramount+ not far behind. Watch the movie while you can before it disappears again.
Note: All screenshots on this page were taken from streaming editions of the film using a web browser.
8 thoughts on “It’s Not Like He’s Saving the World or Anything – True Lies (1994) HD Streaming Comparisons”
1) ‘Cameron even manages to elicit a surprisingly appealing comedic performance from Tom Arnold, which is a a difficult trick for any director to pull off.’ is a hilarious Zyber zinger. I thought Arnold was also quite fun in the first ‘Austin Powers’.
2) There’s a supposedly illegal Spanish Blu-ray of ‘True Lies’ on the market. Don’t know if you heard anything about that.
The Spanish Blu-ray is from the same shady label that put out the Megaforce disc I reviewed a little while ago. I expect that it was ripped from either the D-Theater tape or a streaming copy.
It’s actually hilarious that the label gets away with it.
I have the Spanish Blu-ray and it’s pretty watchable. It also sounds very good. I’ve seen remarks that it compares to an early era Blu-ray release and I would have to agree. I got it on Amazon for $22.99 back in August of 22. If your internet craps out or no one is streaming it, this is the best way to watch. I watch on a 75 inch from about 6 1/2 feet away and it looks pretty good. I’m not sure how it would look on a large projected screen though. Someday a new fresh remaster may become available, but who’s to say it wont turn out green and digitally scrubbed like the T2 master. That’ll be Cameron’s backhanded way of “appeasing” the fans.
Per Jon Landau (Cameron’s producer) to Bill Hunt of thedigitalbits.com, True Lies and The Abyss are coming to 4K sometime later this year. There’s a video of him somewhere confirming the titles.
Both Avatar movies are coming to 4K (with the second movie getting a 3D release as well) on June 20th, so there might be some validity this time.
Personally, I’m hoping he puts out a rescan of Aliens on 4K disc while dialing back the new color timing…
Yeah, I’ve seen the video. Jon Landau is not in charge of home video at Disney. Landau is a producer who would like the studio to release his content, but has no say in whether that will actually happen.
I will believe that True Lies and/or The Abyss are coming to Blu-ray or 4K when the studio officially announces them, not one moment before. We’ve been burned by these “True Lies and The Abyss Are Absolutely Being Released on Blu-ray This Year 100,000% Confirmed!!!!!!!!!!” rumors year after year after year after year for more than decade. I have no patience for that nonsense, no matter who’s spewing it this time.
I agree. That’s why I said, “there might be some validity this time.”
Disney wiped the grain clear for the masters of their old animated titles on Blu-ray and DVD, yet the new Cinderella 4K disc has (per reviews I read) kept the grain in the release. Things have started to change.
Rebound CEO Bob Iger has said Disney will be looking into offering more physical media. What does this all mean? It means Disney might want to put out some surefire, evergreen titles on 4K disc because, quite frankly, they’re hemorrhaging money and they need to make back what they’re losing from massive cancellations of Disney+ subscriptions.
Personally, Tombstone is another title I hope gets a new scan and a 4K disc…
‘Yeah, I’ve seen the video. Jon Landau is not in charge of home video at Disney. Landau is a producer who would like the studio to release his content, but has no say in whether that will actually happen.’
Then again, you’d THINK Disney would want to appease the producer and the director of the movie that just made a cool 2,3 billion. If I were Disney, I’d listen to Landau and Cameron and just get the product out the door.