The Terminator's back. Again.

Sidestep of the Machines 

The Terminator's back. Again.

Much like hilarious Islamic comedy or sublime Affleck picture, the phrase terrific second sequel isn't bandied about much. Name one. Took you a minute, didn't it? Don't be ashamed -- there are probably support groups for fans of Smokey and the Bandit III. Generally, creative juices are drained by Parte Trois, which makes Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines a gamble. In 1984, those pesky machines tried and failed to destroy humanity, albeit on a tight budget. In 1991, they tried and failed again on a huge budget. Then twelve years of real time passed. What's left to say?

Not much, it turns out, but it's reasonably thrilling anyway. If you're hoping for a brilliant revisionist take on the franchise, forget it. As David Fincher did with the abysmal Alien 3, director Jonathan Mostow (U-571) simply runs James Cameron's discarded toys through their expected paces while smearing them with industrial-strength doom. The difference is that Mostow serves up generous kicks en route to Armageddon.

Plotwise, this sequel is almost exactly like the last one, with another advanced-model cyborg sent from the future to kill humanity's only hope. Reluctant hero John Connor, spawn of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn (both absent), has ceased being young Edward Furlong and has transformed into eighteen-year-old Nick Stahl (the murdered kid from In the Bedroom). Connor has been surviving incognito on the dirty streets of L.A. and has sunk so far into depression that he actually drinks Budweiser. His mission now is to allow Schwarzenegger's reprogrammed, outmoded Terminator robot to save him so he can save humanity. Again.

The problem facing the 3 billion people about to be executed by the Skynet weapons grid is that an ill-tempered blonde has landed in Beverly Hills. Is this Terminator 3 or Species III? As the lethal and ostensibly invulnerable T-X, Kristanna Loken is meaner, stronger and faster than Robert Patrick's T-1000 from T2. She makes one pine for good-natured bionic ladies like Jamie Sommers. Loken's pout is decidedly silly -- meaner girls await you at the mall -- but she's got one hell of an arsenal, and she knows how to work it.

Cameron's iconic, morose Terminator and its slamming sequel already boast endless logistical temporal loopholes, yet they defy nitpicking with overall heroic purpose. (Come to think of it, has Cameron ever made a movie that wasn't about man versus machine?) Mostow's misstep here is to gut Cameron's willful philosophy and replace its innards with cheap post-industrial nihilism. Consequently, the movie's curt, flat third act is dead weight at the end of an otherwise clever, rollicking ride.

But if you have affection for this series, you'll get a charge out of T3's first ninety minutes. The movie is basically one long chase, with moments of glib tenderness thrown in between Connor and his accidental soul mate, sweetheart veterinarian Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), who -- like the T-X -- appears to suffer from pinkeye. ("The life you know, all the stuff you take for granted [like Visine], it's not gonna last.") We get the requisite techno nightmares, the shattering glass, the heavy artillery and the poignant longing for parents. It's enough to forgive the heroes for moving in sexy slow motion when danger's just around the corner.

Tellingly, Arnold is looking disturbingly like California Governor Gray Davis these days, but his dry wit has never been sharper. Beyond that, the producers ply their target audience with vicarious hooks, summoning the fears of white, middle-class brats and Latino fast-food employees. Not surprisingly, pitting Schwarzenegger against Loken also stirs up gender wars, especially when he's bashing her over the head with a urinal. These battles bring the conflict home to us mere humans and pose the crucial question: Do androids leave the toilet seat up?

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