"T3" delivers the goods. A hard-hitting, straight-ahead sci-fi actioner with none of the pretentions and ponderousness that have put at least a portion of the public off of "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Hulk," this long-awaited return of Arnold Schwarzenegger's most famous character serves up nothing more and, crucially, nothing less than it intends to.

“T3″ delivers the goods. A hard-hitting, straight-ahead sci-fi actioner with none of the pretentions and ponderousness that have put at least a portion of the public off of “The Matrix Reloaded” and “Hulk,” this long-awaited return of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous character serves up nothing more and, crucially, nothing less than it intends to. Despite its $175 million-plus budget and the strong reputations of James Cameron’s first two entries in the series, pic arrives in the marketplace with considerably less expectational baggage than some of the season’s other highly hyped sequels and would-be blockbusters, which can only work to its benefit in terms of audience satisfaction. Global B.O. should easily justify the financial expenditure, protracted development and risky decision to move ahead without Cameron.

Many concerns have dogged “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”: Could 55-year-old political aspirant Schwarzenegger still climb into his black leather Terminator duds? Could the new film measure up to other special effects epics that have eclipsed it in the interim? Could Jonathan Mostow even begin to fill Cameron’s shoes? Would audiences still care about the franchise 12 years after the spectacular “T2″?

The answer to the first question is yes, and the way pic establishes the requisite scope, technique and tone within the first few minutes suggests a resounding yes to the other questions as well. The film maintains a balance between urgent drama and eye-popping violence delivered by a sensibility happily more inclined to classical action aesthetics than to fashionable effects for effects’ sake.

Script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who penned “The Game” for Mostow before the director was removed from the project, very smoothly picks up the story thread from “T2,” in which young teenager John Connor was instrumental in forestalling Judgment Day, when Skynet’s machines were meant to wipe out humankind.

Summing up action from the first two pictures, Connor (now played in his early 20s by Nick Stahl rather than by “T2’s” Edward Furlong) notes how the mechanized forces of evil tried to kill him twice, once before he was born and again at age 13. As a result, the grunge boy now lives “off the grid,” where “no one, and nothing, can find me,” although he does admit he feels “the weight of the future bearing down on me.”

Connor’s status as the chosen One who will save humanity from an ultra-powerful system bent on replacing it naturally calls “The Matrix” to mind. But there’s little mystery, ambiguity or intellectual posturing to the “Terminator” series, which sets it apart from other pictures this summer. This is strictly bad girl chasing good guys and girl for the better part of two hours, and doing it on a very large scale indeed.

Bad girl in question makes quite an entrance. “Born” in a BevHills boutique window, the statuesque blonde strides nude across Rodeo Drive at night, announces to a woman that she likes her sports car and races off in it. She appropriates a cop’s gun in similar fashion. This brazen being, it’s soon revealed, is T-X (Kristanna Loken), the most technologically advanced, and certainly best looking, cyborg assassin ever unleashed upon the world.

Also arriving in the buff is a dead ringer for the original model Terminator (Schwarzenegger), who walks out of the desert and straight into a honky tonk on ladies’ night, where he avails himself of the male stripper’s black Terminator uniform. Although amusing, more could have been made of this sequence, but then “Terminator 3″ is not a film that pauses for incidentals.

T-X has been deposited on Earth with the mission of tracking down and killing Connor, thus paving the way for the machines’ takeover. That path goes through a young vet and former school classmate of Connor’s, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), whose three-star general father (David Andrews) is in charge of maintaining U.S. security against the machines’ threat. Killing innocent bystanders as she goes, T-X quickly closes in on Connor, who has sought refuge at the unsuspecting Kate’s clinic, and is foiled only when the Terminator steps in for the first of several duels with her.

Although it’s Connor’s survival that matters above all, the battles between the Terminator and T-X are the picture’s meat and potatoes. In the same way that sci-fi/fantasy aficionados relished Robert Patrick’s T-1000 in “T2,” series fans will delight in the ways in which the new model’s superiority to Schwarzenegger’s “obsolete” T-101 are detailed: Like the T-1000, her humanoid liquid metal exterior can quickly recover from damage or morph to take on another’s appearance and a prosthetic arm can instantly transform into a multi-purpose weapon. But the T-X also has an ultra-sophisticated computerized brain and internal tracking system. She’s the strongest cyborg yet made, and in an amusing early gambit, she is able to pick up the trail of the otherwise untraceable Connor by tasting his blood.

“T3″ shows its true scale a half-hour in with a chase involving the cops, Connor and Kate in a truck, the Terminator on a motorcycle and T-X at the wheel of a 100-ton crane. At one point, the Terminator is snared on the hook at crane’s end and slammed into a succession of buildings as the enormous vehicle barrels through an industrial neighborhood. The extent of destruction is staggering and looks entirely real, as does the final upending of the crane that, as the press notes reveal, was accomplished with some CGI assistance. Anyone craving big-time screen action will get it in this sequence.

Worked into the relative downtime are Connor’s struggles over the notion of being the Resistance leader, a status underlined by the Terminator when he declares that, “Judgment Day is inevitable.” Connor and Kate have to come to terms with some mildly unsettling past relations and are taken to the grave of Connor’s mother before learning they have precisely three hours to try to save the world before the predicted nuclear war.

There’s nothing like a ticking clock attached to the planet’s fate to set a film like this into high gear. While Kate’s dad nervously engages military means to try to thwart doomsday, only the Terminator really has any kind of chance against T-X, who keeps coming back again and again and engages her antiquated rival in an extended gladiatorial mano a mano that kicks gratifying butt. Actual ending is sobering in a way that has been seen numerous times before, but is nonetheless one that every generation can use seeing. It also leaves the door open to yet another series installment, should the star’s political career go awry.

After several less than memorable appearances in lackluster vehicles, it really is good to see Schwarzenegger back in form in one of his trademark roles. He looks great (allegedly, he fit right into the same costume he wore the first time around 19 years ago), delivers his retorts with the same economical authority he did before and in no way seems like a aging action star desperately striving for one last shot at glory. More than in “T2,” the current Terminator’s physical inferiority to his opponent invests Schwarzenegger with an unaccustomed underdog status that brings him closer to the viewer.

Newcomer Loken proves a worthy adversary, and the effectiveness of the young thesp’s perfect features is augmented by her relentless physicality and subtly artificial movements that sometimes make her head resemble a swiveling surveillance camera.

A last-minute substitution for another actress and an initially surprising presence in this sort of fare, Danes brings grit and intelligence to the role of a young woman thrust into an uncommonly challenging situation. Stahl wrestles manfully with the existential dilemma of his character, but remains a bit too much the average disaffected youth. To make Connor into a memorable role, the actor would probably have needed to identify something special inside the character that he isn’t even aware of himself, but it’s not visible in this reading.

The outstanding Terminator get-up
and animatronic effects by Stan Winston and special visual effects and animation by Industrial Light & Magic will decidedly give any audience its money’s worth. At the same time, the series’ origins in the relatively low-budget sci-fi arena can still be seen in the picture’s dark look and, compared with the likes of the “Matrix” and “X-Men” franchises, mundane contempo settings. Despite all the effects, pic’s style is not determined by them.

Other craft contributions are sturdily professional rather than slick, and action is ably supported by a Marco Beltrami score that is unobtrusive by current standards.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Mario F. Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna presentation of an Intermedia/IMF production in association with C2 Pictures and Mostow/Lieberman productions. Produced by Kassar, Vajna, Joel B. Michaels, Hal Lieberman, Colin Wilson. Executive producers, Moritz Borman, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Gale Anne Hurd. Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Screenplay, John Brancato, Michael Ferris, story by Brancato, Ferris, Tedi Sarafian.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Don Burgess; editors, Neil Travis, Nicolas de Toth; music, Marco Beltrami; production designer, Jeff Mann; art directors, Mark Zuelzke, Beat Frutiger, Andrew Menzies, Shepherd Frankel; set designers, Jeff Markwith, Theodore Sharps, A. Todd Holland, Maya Shimoguchi, Maria Baker, Jane Wuu, Masako Masuda, Timothy Earls, Barbara Mesney, Betty S. Krul; set decorator, Jay R. Hart; costume designer, April Ferry; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), William B. Kaplan; supervising sound mixers, Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell; Terminator makeup and animatronic effects, Stan Winston; digital animation supervisor, Dan Taylor; visual effects supervisor, Pablo Helman; special visual effects and animation, Industrial Light & Magic; assistant director, Bruce Moriarty; second unit director/stunt coordinator, Simon Crane; second unit camera, Ben Seresin; casting, Randi Hiller, Sarah Halley Finn. Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, L.A., June 13, 2003. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Terminator - Arnold Schwarzenegger John Connor - Nick Stahl Kate Brewster - Claire Danes Robert Brewster - David Andrews T-X - Kristanna Loken Scott Petersen - Mark Famiglietti
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