It was seven years between The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The wait was worth it. It's been 12 years between T2 and this one. The wait was, again, worth it. Stopping every once in a while to pay homage to its predecessors, often with a cinematic wink of the eye, T3 works on about every level one could hope for.

The story begins 10 years after the last one ended, with narration from the film's hero John Connor (Nick Stahl) explaining that the bombs never fell, that the computers never took over, that Judgment Day was stopped before it ever happened. Anyone who saw the first two films knows exactly what he's talking about. Anyone who hasn't seen the first two films, needs to do so before lining up for this one, lest they be mightily confused.

Before you can say "I'll be back," there's a lot of noise and a lot of flashing lights, followed by the arrival of the new villain, simply called T-X, which is short for Terminatrix. Played by supermodel Kristanna Loken, she's introduced naked and nasty. Immediately after that, she's being chased by cops when she steals a Lexus. Not long after, signaled by more noise and more lights, is the arrival of our old friend the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), also naked -- and pumped! -- and looking nasty. But Arnold hasn't played a bad guy since his unfortunate turn as Mr. Freeze, and here, again, he's a mechanical hero, out to protect John Connor and his soon-to-be new companion Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). By the way, the T-800 doesn't cotton to being called a robot. The term he prefers is cybernetic organism.

It takes very little time for the film to get off and running. The T-X goes zipping around Los Angeles killing teens, even though they haven't done anything... yet; John and Kate get to know each other, even though she'd rather be elsewhere; the T-800 keeps having standoffs with the T-X, even though she's one hell of an improvement over what he is. The film's one glitch is that some of her extra powers are kind of silly rather than threatening.

All of these people and machines are drawn together for a series of life-and-death situations. The best one is a massive set-piece that turns into an insanely destructive car-truck-fire engine chase. It's very hard to keep track of how many vehicles, telephone poles and buildings are smashed in this lengthy scene. But the most memorable thing about it, and what sets it apart from any road chase in any other film, is that there's no pounding soundtrack accompanying it. It's done mostly to the sounds of crashes.

While all the action is going on, there's also a story line concerning how the military is trying to figure out why and how a virus is causing telecommunications failures around the world. The government is strongly suggesting that the solution is to finally activate the massive computer system known as SkyNet. Of course, as any Terminator expert knows, that would be the wrong thing to do.

Although this isn't the kind of film that's discussed because of its acting, director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571) has gotten some very good performances out of his cast. Stahl underplays it nicely, Danes overplays it to good effect, and Arnold, handling the one-liners with straight-faced aplomb, gets almost all of the laughs. Loken's performance is one of pent-up control. She does crack a couple of Mona Lisa smiles, but other than that, her face is expressionless. No matter how physical things get for her -- and they get very physical -- she never has a hair out of place on top of that cold, steely look.

Things go very bad for our heroes -- then they get worse. The film's two main motifs involve people being thrown through the air or tossed out of moving vehicles and landing very hard; and a string of visual gags about Arnold's sunglasses. One other gag, aimed straight at the funnybones of hardcore series fans, is a brief cameo by Earl Boen, reprising his role as the unfortunate Dr. Silberman, the only character besides Arnold's to appear in all three films.

All of the storylines get tied up rather neatly at the end, and there's a feeling of satisfaction concerning where the writers have let the story stop. But there's no doubt of two things: The film, though one of the most expensive in the history of Hollywood, is going to make a pile of money because it's so entertaining. And if a script for T4 hasn't already been started, it will be by the time Arnold hits the California campaign trail.

A Movie Night of Remembrance: The Woman King @ Magic Lantern Theatre

Thu., Dec. 1, 7:30 p.m.
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