Ah-nuld Back to Basics
This sequel makes sense
Patrick Reed

Is this the next Jesse Ventura?

Twelve years in the movie biz is an eternity in terms of keeping oneself near the top of the action-film pecking order. Careers with the decades-long duration of Clint Eastwood have always been rare in the action genre-and never more so than in the current era, when the most expensively produced and marketed films rely more on computer-enhanced stunts and special effects than star charisma. Contrast this present situation with the early 1990s, when a handful of larger-than-life he-men bestrode the screens of cinemas worldwide, none of them more imposing than the monosyllabic Austrian colossus Arnold Schwarzenegger, who upon the release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day in the summer of 1991 was the most popular action star in the world.

Featuring the same taut, intense storyline and direction James Cameron brought to the first Terminator in 1984, deluxe special effects by Stan Winston and Industrial Light and Magic, Guns n' Roses rocking on the soundtrack, and an appealing heroine (Linda Hamilton, also from T1) hell-bent on saving both her son and the world, Judgment Day was a huge success, and it seemed that Cameron and Schwarzenegger could do no wrong. Cameron went on to make the highest-grossing film ever, the overblown Titanic in 1997but Schwarzenegger, despite numerous efforts at solidifying his "last action hero" status, never reached the heights of T2 again (only coming close in his last effort with Cameron, True Lies in '94).

Maybe it was a classic case of typecasting-for although Schwarzenegger surpassed his initial fame as bodybuilding's "Mr. Universe" in the 1970s by working his rear end off in scores of movies during the subsequent years, after the first Terminators, the public came to primarily identify the actor with the character no matter what he did. There's a certain fascination many people have with inner discipline, a commitment to duty, and an aversion to wishy-washy pontificating, and Ah-nuld's catchphrase-conscious, cybertronic ass-kicker embodied all of these qualities-especially in T2, when he'd been reprogrammed as a good guy. (This essentially conservative persona may have political ramifications in the near future-just wait and see how many Terminator-style pledges Schwarzenegger proclaims if he indeed does run for governor of California, where he will, if rumors are realized, perhaps face off in a Hollywood-fueled ideological clash against Rob "the Meathead" Reiner.)

After a series of pictures that underperformed at the box office (Collateral Damage, The 6th Day, etc.), the 55-year old, physically fit actor signed on to resurrect his meal ticket for a third time. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines lacks Cameron's supervision- however, screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris penned the Sandra Bullock cyber-thriller The Net and, more impressively, the jigsaw-puzzle Michael Douglas morality tale The Game, while director Jonathan Mostow has helmed several pictures since the mid-90s, most notably the WWII submarine actioner U-571. Also, T3's pre-release marketing push is noticeably toned-down compared to recent releases The Hulk, The Matrix Reloaded, and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. It's almost as if the film's backers are hedging their bets a bit, making Schwarzenegger's popularity especially crucial for T3's success. The questions arise: does Ah-nuld still have that sort of mega-star leverage? And, with the new creative team calling the shots, is the story still compelling?

Somewhat surprisingly, Rise of the Machines isn't a worn-out, embarrassing retread-the script, which picks up the saga of outcast (and future savior of the human race) John Connor several years after the culmination of Judgment Day, brushes off some of the previous apocalyptic themes of the first two movies and embeds some new, unexpected twists. Connor (Nick Stahl, In the Bedroom) is paired up with long-forgotten junior-high makeout partner Kate Brewster (Claire Danes, Romeo + Juliet) as both are targeted for extermination by a newfangled, technologically advanced terminator (blonde model-turned-actress Kristanna Loken) sent back once again to squash the formation of human opposition to an impending machine-led world takeover. Of course, it follows that an ever-more-obsolete T-model (Schwarzenegger) is also sent back to protect Connor once again-and thus Terminator 3 pits robot assassin vs. robot protector as Connor and Kate race against the clock to prevent a defense-system computer virus from initiating Armageddon. There's plenty of graphic violence, vehicle chasing, and corny humor (an Ah-nuld specialty), and the visual action updates Cameron's T2 flourishes without a bunch of computer-generated effects overkill (both Winston and ILM return, and the audio technicians must have logged thousands of man-hours to inventory the collection of metal-on-metal smashing sounds alone). By the time the story reaches its somber, open-ended conclusion, one is struck by the fact that while falling far short of a superlative film, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines capably revives a moribund sci-fi franchise-and furthermore, that Schwarzenegger, for the first time in eons, seems to be enjoying himself immensely; there's still some life left in this old contraption.