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Review: He said he’d be back ... Arnold and ‘Terminator 2' return with a vengeance

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Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1991 movie “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
(TriStar Pictures)
Film Critic

Note: This review was originally published July 3, 1991. The film is being re-released in 3D.

He has built it. And yes, without a doubt, they will come.

He is the gifted James Cameron, the consensus choice as the action director of his generation. What he’s built is “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the most eagerly awaited film of the summer and one of the most expensive (officially, $88 million and counting) ever made. More elaborate than the original, but just as shrewdly put together, it cleverly combines the most successful elements of its predecessor with a number of new twists (would you believe a kinder, gentler Terminator?) to produce one hell of a wild ride, a Twilight of the Gods that takes no prisoners and leaves audiences desperate for mercy.

If you don’t count “Piranha II” (and Cameron doesn’t), the original 1984 “Terminator” was his first job as a director. It remains an exceptional debut, a lean, laconic action classic that benefited not only from the man’s enviable skills as an orchestrator of mayhem but also from the tale he came up with: A machine that looks like a human being is sent from the future to the present in order to kill one Sarah Connor, a hapless waitress whose yet unborn son will, in a distant, post-nuclear holocaust time, lead the forces of humanity in a war against (what else but) power-mad machines.

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That assassin is the Terminator, a very tough nut whose modus operandi is described as follows: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel remorse or pity or fear. And it absolutely will not stop until you are dead.” As played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose witty “Night of the Living Dead” delivery turned this into the role of a lifetime, the Terminator became a major anti-hero, the monster from the id you couldn’t help but admire.

“Terminator 2" takes up a decade after the first one ends. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, returning from the original) finds herself in a state mental hospital for insisting that the Terminator was not a figment of her imagination. Her 10-year-old son John, the future hope of the world (newcomer Edward Furlong), is a whiny brat living in the Valley and making life miserable for his foster parents. He thinks his mom is, not to put too fine a point on it, a loser.

Though thwarted in the past, the evil machines of the future refuse to wimp out. They send a new model Terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), to finish the job and kill young John. Based on the same computer-generated technology that Cameron first used in “The Abyss” (remember the water magically turning into a face?), the T-1000 is a remarkable piece of special effects sleight-of-hand, a mercury-like creature able to not only change shapes at will but to also return to its original form no matter what. Like an old Timex watch, it takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

Sarah and John are not, however, without resources. A now-outmoded but still canny T-800 model (Schwarzenegger) is reprogrammed to look kindly on humans and sent back to give them a hand. Adding to the T-800’s difficulties, however, young John suddenly develops a humanitarian streak and insists that his Terminator not kill anyone when a good maiming will do just as nicely. Watching Schwarzenegger’s Terminator cope with these new ethical guidelines is one of this sequel’s more delicious conceits.

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Despite these new wrinkles, “Terminator 2" does not so much start slowly (for Cameron likes to let you know whose film you’re in as soon as possible) as derivatively. Some of the film’s opening sequences, such as the way the T-800 goes about getting clothes and wheels, feel like more elaborate but not necessarily more involving versions of scenes from the first film. Even in action films, bigger is not necessarily better.

But “Terminator 2,” like its namesake, is nothing if not determined, and we are soon won over. For one thing, though Furlong is more irritating as John Connor than he really needs to be, that is more than made up by the other principals. Schwarzenegger, for one, re-embraces this role like a long lost relative — no one can say “It must be destroyed” quite the way he can — and Hamilton brings a level of physical intensity to her new model, pumped-up paranoid Sarah Connor that even devotees of the first film will find pleasantly surprising.

As for the script, Cameron and co-writer William Wisher have done more than make sure that “Terminator 2" is well-stocked with the kind of wised-up, shoot-from-the-hip wit that characterized the first film. Sensing that a series of Terminator versus Terminator chases would soon become boring no matter how excellent the effects, they sensibly opted to take the middle of the film down a different, more intriguing road, one involving a computer scientist (a very fine appearance by Joe Morton) who is investigating the relics of the first Terminator.

Most of all, what makes “Terminator 2” come alive in a major way is Cameron’s intuitive understanding of the mechanics and psychology of action films. Unlike many of the wanna-bes who find themselves in charge of pictures these days, this is one director who really knows how to direct. It’s not so much that his virtuoso stunts break an ungodly amount of glass (which they do) as that he packs an astounding ferocity into his sequences. And unlike someone like Paul “Robocop” Verhoeven, he manages to do it without turning our stomachs.

Equally at home in small-scale skirmishes like one-on-one chases down narrow corridors and complex, bravura effects involving tottering helicopters, exploding buildings and as many as five different special-effects houses, Cameron flamboyantly underlines, for those who may have forgotten, why the pure adrenaline rush of motion is something motion pictures can’t live for very long without.

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“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”

Rated: R, for strong sci-fi action and violence, and for language

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Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Playing: In general release

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran


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