Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his trademark role, the T-800 killer cyborg, in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"--this time without the support of franchise creator James Cameron or original heroine Linda Hamilton. While the new installment clearly suffers from the loss of the series' main imaginative force, for the most part sticking slavishly to Cameron's established story formula rather than breaking new ground, a strong cast and new director Jonathan Mostow's chaotic sense of action keep this hard-to-terminate saga moving forward with at least a few of the old guns blazing.
Set a few years after "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," the new film finds an 18-year-old John Connor (now played by Nick Stahl from "In the Bedroom") living "off the grid" as a wandering day laborer, gloomily aware of his possible destiny to lead humanity in a revolt against its future machine oppressors. As always, the plot kicks into motion with the arrival of a new model of Terminator from the future--in this case, the female-shaped T-X (model-turned-actress Kristanna Loken), sent to wipe out Connor and his future resistance lieutenants before events transform them into anti-machine guerrillas. Of course, yet another of Schwarzenegger's outmoded T-800s is also dispatched to the present to protect the young hero.
While too much of this is a straight rehash of "T2" for the new film to stand up alongside Cameron's installments, Mostow ("Breakdown") has plenty of fun with frenetic action set pieces notable for their gleeful destruction of anything that happens to get in the way of the dueling Terminators. The stunning Loken's liquid-metal performance as the T-X easily holds its own against the franchise's baddies past, while Stahl and the always-engaging Claire Danes ("Igby Goes Down") do respectable work as the romantically linked human leads. Promisingly, the film's boldest twist comes at its climax, clearing the way for a follow-up that might actually take this increasingly repetitious series in a badly needed fresh direction. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes and Kristanna Loken. Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Produced by Hal Lieberman, Colin Wilson, Mario F. Kassar, Andrew G. Vajna and Joel B. Michaels. A Warner Bros. release. Sci-Fi/Action. Rated R for strong sci-fi violence and action, language and brief nudity. Running time: 108 min.