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T3: Rise of the Machines

Going into the third movie of the Terminator series, I steeled myself for the worst. Arnold Schwarzenegger is clearly desperate for a hit after a string of flops (The 6th Day, Jingle All the Way, Collateral Damage). Sucking on the Terminator tit that was milked for a worldwide box office of $550 million would let him go out on top and clear the way for a reported run for the governorship of California.

Never mind that it’s been twelve years since T2, that Schwarzenegger is now fifty-five and that James Cameron, the gifted director of the first two films, decided to sit this one out. Ouch! Also opting out was Linda Hamilton, who played the mother of mankind’s future savior, John Connor (Edward Furlong, another no-show). It sounds like rats leaving a sinking franchise.

Well, color me pleasantly surprised. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines may lack the mythic pow of the 1984 original and the visionary thrill of T2, but it’s a potent popcorn movie that digs in its hooks and doesn’t let go until an ending that ODs on apocalyptic hoo-ha.

To catch you up, John Connor, now played by In the Bedroom‘s Nick Stahl, is on the run. He wants no part of this savior business. That’s when a new terminator, called T-X for terminatrix, is sent to dispatch him. As played by Kristanna Loken, she’s a honey and a half. T-X kills for clothes, for wheels (“I like this car,” she tells her victim) and a weapon (“I like your gun,” she tells a cop). Now there’s dialogue to tax the film’s two screenwriters.

No matter. I like Loken. She’s a killer-diller who manages to bring sly wit and sexiness to the role of an expressionless 3,000-pound machine. The scene in which she learns to enlarge her breasts is a kick. Hellbent on killing John and those who touch his life, including veterinarian Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), T-X is not to be messed with.

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nter T-101, played by Schwarzenegger. He is not the same terminator as before, but he is on the same mission: to protect John. T-101 also comes in naked, stealing clothes from a leather-clad male stripper (nice touch). T-X’s advanced alloy endoskeleton gives T-101 a jumbo inferiority complex. Schwarzenegger has fun with the idea. “I’m an obsolete design,” he tells John, admitting that T-X is “a more effective killing machine. I’m not shitting you.” Their fights, like miniature car wrecks, are all excitingly staged, but the last one — metal twisted into a parody of sexual positions — is both erotic and hilarious. Forget the bride of Frankenstein, T-X is a hotter number.

Stan Winston’s creature effects are first-rate, and the action, be it a car chase (a pulp cliché transcended) with T-101 hanging from a hundred-ton crane or an army of robots marshaled to attack, bristles with an R-rated intensity that suits the film.

Major credit must go to director Jonathan Mostow. Working on an epic scale that comes with a $170 million budget, he propels the narrative with the same zippy B-movie energy he brought to his smaller-scaled Breakdown and U-571. I mean that as a compliment. T3 is good enough to warrant a T4.

b>Also Starring: Humans

How can mere humans compare with two killer robots going at it in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines? Short answer: They can’t. But Nick Stahl, as John Connor, and Claire Danes, as Kate Brewster, the veterinarian he might love, marry and impregnate down the line, give it a try that goes beyond the call of action-flick duty.

Stahl, filling in for Edward Furlong as the man predestined to stop machines from erasing all signs of humanity from the planet (jeez, I thought that was Hollywood’s job), has a nonactorish sensitivity that sticks with you. When his character is murdered early in In the Bedroom, his presence haunts the rest of the movie. You want that kind of actor playing John.

And Danes, past the delicate-flower days of Romeo and Juliet and Little Women, has developed a streak of feisty independence that blossomed in Igby Goes Down.

In T3, Danes is saddled with early scenes that call for the kind of weepy, girly-girl acting that helped scuttle Laura Dern’s performance in Jurassic Park. To be fair, consider Kate’s predicament: How would you react if a cyborg inhabited your fiancé’s body and then blew it up from the inside? But once Kate begins to accept the link that will join her to John as a warrior, Danes brings a gravity to the role that commands attention.y the end, Danes and Stahl give T3 something T-X and T-101 can’t: a heart.

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