Well, he did say he'd be back. Even though Arnold Schwarzenegger's career hasn't given us much to cheer about of late - End of Days, Collateral Damage - there's only one man who can mangle the English language and the surrounding scenery in true Terminator style. The only surprise is that he left it so long. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines comes a full 12 years after T2: Judgment Day, whose groundbreaking technology more or less set the standard for action movies of the Nineties.
Whether this third instalment will do the same for the present decade is uncertain. The Matrix and its sequels seem to have left the competition a mere dot in the rear-view mirror, and at one mournful moment Schwarzenegger's T-101 admits: "I'm an obsolete design." Oh Arnie, say it isn't so! Actually, he was already close to outmoded in T2 by Robert Patrick's extraordinary shape-shifter, the T-1000, who could gloopily absorb a black-and-white tiled floor as mobile camouflage. If you thought that was a neat party trick, check the latest upgrade T-X (Kristanna Loken) in Terminator 3, a blonde female cyborg whose unsmiling powers of flexibility and reach should make her a dead cert for next year's Wimbledon. She has style, too, bursting out of a Beverly Hills boutique window to commandeer not only a passing shopper's Audi but her burgundy leather catsuit as well.
This implacable creature has arrived from the future to kill John Connor (Nick Stahl), whose destiny is to lead a human resistance movement against Skynet, a conglomerate of deadly machines that will colonise planet Earth. She is also intending to kill his future helpmeet Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a veterinarian who just happens to be minding her own business when she finds herself the prime target of a blonde assassin who can shoot flames from her hand. Only one thing can save this star-crossed pair, and that's a six-foot Terminator with a pump-action shotgun and a face of granitic impassiveness. John knows the score by now and accepts the cyborg's protection, but you can see why Kate might be freaked out by these galloping developments.
James Cameron is no longer on board, but handling the stunt work doesn't appear to have fazed Jonathan Mostow. In the climax to his neat thriller Breakdown he proved himself a dab hand with duelling juggernauts, and he reprises the trick on a monstrous scale here as Arnie, swinging from the hook of a crane, speedily bulldozes a whole line of shopfronts. Even funnier is the sequence in which Arnie and the Terminatrix go mano a mano in a corporate bathroom; she uses his head to knock down a row of stalls like dominoes, he responds by smashing her head with a porcelain urinal. You see what happens when the loos are made unisex?
Indeed, the action comes at such a fierce pace that one is inclined to think of Terminator 3 as a steroid-enhanced B-movie, albeit one that cost $170m (£105m). Mostow takes his duties seriously, but not so seriously as to preclude a sense of humour. When Arnie falls to earth, naked as a newborn, he finds himself at a rowdy hen night where a gay dancer is disporting himself in leathers that would be a natural fit for a Terminator. "Take off your clothes," comes the robotic command, and we cut to Arnie striding out of the club in familiar attire, discarding the spangled sunglasses as perhaps a touch too camp. And there is something almost reminiscent of The Office's David Brent about the way his approving social observation grinds through the gears. Hearing John and Kate joking together, he remarks: "Your levity is good. It relieves tension and the fear of death."
In between the mayhem and the levity, Mostow and his writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris sort out a story from the unruly tangle of past, present and future inherited from the Cameron movies. John's mother Sarah, a pivotal figure hitherto, has died, while Judgment Day has been postponed, not averted. The end of the world is nigh, which means that Arnie has to get his charges to safety before it all goes up in smoke. In the circumstances, one can understand why Nick Stahl as John looks a little ragged and sleep-deprived: to say he has the weight of the world on his shoulders would, for once, be accurate.
It's even tougher on Claire Danes, who spends the first half of the movie not knowing what the hell is going on, and the second half in a trance of horrified disbelief: her day, which began with a visit to a sick dog, proceeded with fleeing a killer blonde, discovering her husband-to-be, witnessing her father's murder and, oh yes, trying to outrun an apocalypse.
Terminator 3 hasn't the dark undercurrents of dread that coursed through the first two movies, perhaps because we are too well primed for its shocks. Its basic unit is a triple whammy: humans in peril; sudden arrival of evil Terminatrix; life-saving intervention by Arnie. The sense of déjà vu nags away. Yet praise is due to Mostow and his team that most of it plays with such rollicking efficiency. Not for them the drearily self-important "philosophy" of The Matrix, or the daft animatronics of Hulk. This movie, machine-tooled and streamlined as precisely as the T-X herself, makes an honest effort to upgrade an already formidable franchise, and however much it seems replicated from an earlier model, I was never bored by it. These days, that's worth $170m of anyone's money.
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