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“ John believes he averted Judgment Day with the help of the Terminator, but he's still plagued by nightmares about a post-apocalyptic future. ”

Nick Stahl plays John Connor

Terminator 3 Rise to the Occasion

Sun 6 Jul 2003 | 00h02 GMT+1

Note to any studio head who might be contemplating giving the green light to, say, a third "Charlie's Angels" flick: Sometimes it is good to wait, take a breather and give your audience time to want you again.

That's definitely the case with "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," a fast-paced, thoroughly entertaining new chapter in the history of everyone's favorite muscle-bound, time-traveling cyborg. Officially, it opens Wednesday, but most theaters will start playing it at 8 tonight. It's been 19 years since the first "Terminator" movie and 12 since the sequel. Both could stand alone if they had to; society could have easily survived without a third movie.

But the time lapse has been good for the franchise. Absence has not only made the heart grow fonder, it's made the cool action sequences that much more technologically impressive. Moreover, waiting almost two decades to finish the story has added an element of logic to the storytelling that sloppy sequels don't usually bother with.

For one thing, John Connor has actually had time to become an adult. Hailed as the savior of the human race before he was even conceived, John (Nick Stahl from "In the Bedroom") is now 22, which doesn't entirely fit with our math, but it's close enough. He believes he averted Judgment Day as a teenager (back when Edward Furlong had the role) with the help of the Terminator, but he's still plagued by nightmares about a post-apocalyptic future. He's chosen to live off the grid -- no phone, no home, etc., just in case.

Smart boy. The movie begins with a pow as TX (Kristanna Loken), the latest killing machine, arrives from the future, followed shortly by the original model Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), returning once again to keep Connor alive. Both arrive naked, buff and ready for action. Since John has been living off the grid, the TX is here to kill those who were to become his lieutenants in the future, including his old classmate from middle school, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes).

This Terminator is a fresh model of the original cyborg, but some things haven't changed. He still favors leather outfits, and he's as drawn to a fetching new pair of sunglasses as most women are to a shoe sale. In the 19 years since the first movie, Schwarzenegger has aged, but hardly noticeably; when he stands up nude from his time travel arrival into the past, he looks remarkably as he did in 1984.

Besides providing a mercifully coherent plot line, the team of screenwriters (John Brancato, Michael Ferris, Tedi Sarafian) have beefed up the humor quotient. Searching for suitable clothing, the Terminator strides into a honky-tonk where ladies' night is in full swing and a leather-clad male stripper has just taken the stage. The dancer responds to the Terminator's request that he strip immediately with a sassy "Talk to the hand." As you watch Schwarzenegger grab the stripper's hand, twist it backward, and then reissue his request, this time with his mouth pressed against the guy's hand -- he takes things literally, remember -- you find yourself thinking with pleasure, "He is back, isn't he?" Throughout the movie, Schwarzenegger gets laughs out of a hearty percentage of his lines.

The menacing TX has her light moments as well. After stealing some unfortunate woman's clothes and shiny silver car, she gets pulled over for speeding. While waiting for the officer to approach the car, she notices a nearby Victoria's Secret billboard featuring 5-foot-tall cleavage next to the line, "What is sexy?" The TX absorbs this information and by the time the policeman gets to her window, she's given herself an instant boob job.

This third movie is bloody and violent, although perhaps no more so than the others. The TX sticks her arms through people, pounds bullets into hapless bystanders and trashes entire city blocks in her quest to kill John Connor and his future lieutenants.

The violence isn't the only thing that provides continuity. Classic lines from the first movie, including "I'll be back," have been cutely retailored for this one. There's mention of "Hasta la vista, baby." Remember the police shrink who debriefed John's mother, Sarah Connor, in the first movie and reappeared in the sequel? Look for actor Earl Boen playing him again.

Linda Hamilton, who gave Sarah a sweet naivete in the first movie and fierce musculature in the second, is no longer in the story. But Danes is an able replacement ("You remind me of my mother" John says to her at one point). You could argue that director Jonathan Mostow ("U-571") didn't require an actress of Danes' caliber to play an action heroine. But her control over the character's range of emotions -- from anger and fear to plucky determination -- is a strong contribution to the story's credibility. Danes sells almost all of her lines (the lamentable exception being one involving her convenient, but unexpected plane-flying abilities).

As for Stahl, he proves to be a fine, believably angst-ridden John Connor. He looks just enough like Hamilton and Michael Biehn, who played his father in the original, to make the connection seem conceivable. He's natural and appealing.

Schwarzenegger's rumored political aspirations suggest it unlikely there'll be another "Terminator" movie. So be it. In this endless summer of sequels, finality is a beautiful thing.

By Mary F. Pols
Contra Costa Times

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