Sabotage (2014, David Ayer)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. 

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Watched: 14 September 2019
Format: Channel 5 showed it on 7 February 2019, so I took a recording.
Seen before? No.

Review: Arnie’s back as an 1980s-style action hero! Specifically, he’s the tough, respected leader of a squad of DEA agents who split their time between going undercover, bashing down doors while firing machine guns, and bickering like children. The fact Schwarzenegger was by now in his mid 60s has a consequence or two. You have to ignore the issue that he’s too old to be an active agent out in the field, but his age does help with the weight on the character’s shoulders. John ‘Breacher’ Wharton is a man mourning his wife and son, who a few months before were sadistically murdered by Mexican drug lords. 

The exciting incident of the plot comes early. We see Breacher and his team storm a drug kingpin’s mansion. They find an enormous stack of cash in the basement… and promptly siphon off a few million for themselves, hiding it in the sewerage system. The sequence is crass – lots of swearing, macho bravado, gunplay and punch-ups – but it’s also quite slick and some fun. This is typical of the entire film, actually. It’s not great, but it is watchable in a rough-round-the-edges way. However, when the team later return to collect their skim, the money has vanished and we’re then thrown into a paranoiac mystery story.

As things develop, members of the team are killed in brutal ways by an unseen assassin, and this draws the attention of investigators played by Olivia Williams and Lost’s Harold Perrineau. They feel like they’re on secondment from their own HBO cop show; they have nicely written banter and an everyday, cynical attitude. Williams’s Caroline Brentwood soon begins to put the clues together and also forms a bond with Breacher.

All this gives Arnie a tad more acting to do than is usual. He’s grieving, he’s bitter, he’s world-weary. He leads his team like a loving father who’s not adverse to showing his anger. He has a crewcut and tattoos. The gang includes Mireille Enos as a livewire agent hooked on drugs herself, as well as Josh Holloway (also from Lost), Terrence Howard (Iron Man), and Sam Worthington (who, coincidentally, was the star of the only Terminator film that Schwarzenegger skipped). The characters have the feel of old friends and their childish name-calling reminds you of similar gangs in films like Aliens and the pre-heist scenes of Reservoir Dogs. (Caveat: Sabotage is nowhere near the overall class of those movies!)

You could argue that the story is about the hypocrisy of law enforcement, about the breakdown of trust within a team, or about how far a broken man is willing to go. But in truth, it’s a balls-to-the-wall exploitation movie and it makes no apology for that. It’s like a Tony Scott thriller done with less money, less glamour and a lot more horror-movie violence. Surprisingly entertaining.

Six sensible shoes out of 10

Next: The Long Goodbye

Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

ConanBarbarian

Watched: 7 September 2019
Format: A DVD found in a charity shop.
Seen before? Nope.

Review: In the 1970s and 80s there was a glut of films that mixed medieval settings with magic and fantasy. This sword-and-scorcery fad took in such varied movies as Jabberwocky (1977), Hawk the Slayer (1980), Excalibur (1981), Ladyhawke (1985) and others of a less interesting aspect. Conan the Barbarian, based on the pulp stories of Robert E Howard, was one of the most successful, taking nearly 10 times its budget at the box office. Sadly, it’s possibly the most boring of the whole genre.

Large portions of the film play like a silent movie. Dialogue is sparse, with director John Milius preferring to tell his simplistic revenge story via action, violence, gesture, close-up and an awful lot of Basil Poledouris’s strident, energetic incidental music. Not a bad idea per se, but a bizarre notion if you’ve cast Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first leading role of note. Playing Conan – an orphaned prisoner in a time before recorded history who hunts down the warlord who murdered his family – Arnie certainly has the physique. But as a character he’s a big blank space where our emotional connection should be.

The film looks handsome enough, thanks to the genius of production designer Ron Cobb, and there are some striking visual sequences such as ethereal demons attempting to abduct an ill and injured Conan. You can also, no doubt, read any number of historical subtexts and precedents in John Milius’s fetishistic love of weaponry and ritual. But the story drags interminably and the cast is variable (ranging from James Earl Jones to a mate of the director’s). It’s often very difficult to care what happens next.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘For Milius, Conan was making a statement that went way beyond action movies and comic books. It all went back to Nietzsche… When Conan opened nationwide on May 14 [1982], it became the first blockbuster of what is still talked about as the best movie summer ever. That summer also brought us The Road Warrior [aka Mad Max 2], Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The World According to Garp, Poltergeist, An Officer and a Gentleman, Tron, The Thing, and, of course, E.T. Conan the Barbarian held its own among them all.’

Four giant snakes out of 10

Next: Sabotage

Red Heat (1988, Walter Hill)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

RedHeat

Watched: 31 August 2019
Format: I’d recorded it from TV channel 5Spike on 25 March 2019.
Seen before? Once before, on TV a few years ago. I may have also seen it at the time on VHS. I was a huge Schwarzenegger fan as a child so it seems strange if I didn’t watch this one, but I don’t remember specifically.

Review: Director Walter Hill had energised the buddy-movie format a few years earlier with the caustic 48 Hrs, pairing a racist white cop (Nick Nolte) with a motormouth black crook (Eddie Murphy) to entertaining effect. The clash this time is that James Belushi’s underwritten American policeman must work alongside a stoic and humourless Soviet counterpart played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It all feels tired and sluggish.

The film begins with a bizarre prologue, which sees a near-naked Arnie undercover (well, under loincloth) at a sauna. But outside the steamroom, cold-war Moscow is a snowy, harsh, drab place. This makes the contrast all the more effective when events then shift to America: Chicago is vibrant, colourful and scored by some prime James Horner funk-bass and saxophone. It’s a city where violence is never far from the surface and the police are coarse men willing to plant evidence to coerce a confession. Peter Boyle is the frustrated captain, Larry Fishburne an angry lieutenant: good actors going through the motions. Later, Gina Gershon shows up for a perfunctory role as the bad guy’s wife.

The rumours have it that the script was in flux during filming, with several hands at the typewriter, and that sense of messiness is evident in the finished movie, which is both aimless and shallow. The plot – a Russian drugs baron flees to the US, so Arnie’s Captain Ivan Danko gives chase – is simplistic and you never at any point believe in or care for any of the characters. It’s competently filmed in the right-wing, tough-guy mode – wetted-down streets, savage gunfights, police stations full of bored prostitutes being booked – but compare it with 48 Hrs, or the previous year’s slick and smart Lethal Weapon, and Red Heat is dead cold.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Red Heat was a success, grossing $35 million in the States, but it wasn’t the smash I’d expected. Why is hard to guess. It could be that audiences were not ready for Russia, or that my and Jim Belushi’s performances were not funny enough, or that the director didn’t do a good enough job.’

Five sacks of shit lying on the sidewalk out of 10

Next time: Conan the Barbarian

Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TotalRecall

Watched: 26 August 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD bought for £2 from the Oxfam Bookshop in Greenwich, south-east London.
Seen before? Yes, when it came out on VHS and several times since.

Review: This is more like it! After seeing a few underwhelming Arnie flicks recently, it’s great to return to the kind of high-concept sci-fi/action thriller that’s exactly in his wheelhouse. We get a story and a tone that play to his strengths and don’t require him to be anything other than a movie star.

It’s the year 2084. Schwarzenegger plays everyman construction worker Doug Quaid, who keeps dreaming of a life on Mars so wishes to move there. But when his wife (a very sultry Sharon Stone) resists the idea, he instead visits a company called Rekall and buys an implanted fake memory of an action-packed holiday on the Red Planet. However, the implant procedure goes wrong. Doug had chosen to spice up his fantasy by assuming the role of a secret agent on a dangerous mission. But after being injected by Rekall’s doctors he now thinks he *is* a secret agent on a dangerous mission, and his life as a construction worker was just a cover story. Has he been duped into believing the artificial memories he asked for? Or did the implant process uncover a real personality, which had been hidden for unknown reasons?

Loosely based on a Philip K Dick short story, and then focused through the sharp storytelling lens of director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers), the story is a spiritual sequel to Arnie’s previous sci-fi film The Running Man (1987). It’s easy to imagine this being the same world but 60 years on; there’s still the Brutalist design aesthetic, a totalitarian state and 80s fashions, but now we also have an off-world colony and radiation-affected mutants. We also get Michael Ironside as a typically watchable villain, some eye-popping special effects (literally so in the opening scene), and masses of tech-noir embellishments (driverless taxis, instant nail varnish, walls that turn into TVs, the scene where Doug disguises himself as a woman by using a fake robotic head). It’s frenetic, fun and fantastic, with scene after scene of surprises and shocks and excitement. *Huge* tongue-in-cheek entertainment. 

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Paul [Verhoeven, who Schwarzenegger headhunted for the director gig] added a dimension of realism and scientific fact… So many things he said were brilliant. He had a vision. He had enthusiasm… The story twists and turns. You never know until the very end: did I take this trip? Was I really the hero? Or was it all inside my head, and I’m just a blue-collar jackhammer operator who may be schizophrenic? Even at the end you’re not necessarily sure. For me, it connected with the sense I had sometimes that my life was too good to be true.’

Nine women who make you wish you had three hands out of 10

Next time: Red Heat

Collateral Damage (2002, Andrew Davis)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

CollateralDamage

Watched: 24 August 2019
Format: Secondhand DVD found in a branch of CEX.
Seen before? No.

Review: The wider world didn’t do this film any favours. It was set to be released in October 2001, but then pushed back because – in the immediate wake of 9/11 – no one was in the mood for a story about terrorist attacks on American soil. By 2002, however, the action-thriller genre was getting a psychologically deeper reboot thanks to The Bourne Identity. In comparison, Collateral Damage feels simplistic and immature.

It’s directed by someone who knows how to put these things together – Andrew Davis, who also made Under Siege and The Fugitive – so it has a certain energy and zip about it. But it’s a cookie-cutter action thriller where American individualism outfoxes foreign aggression, and the lack of any new ideas is a real issue. Essentially a rejigging of the much more nuanced 1994 film Clear and Present Danger (the same kind of plot, bad guys from the same country, even the presence of actor Miguel Sandoval), it sees Arnie star as fireman Gordy Brewer. After witnessing his wife and child being killed in a terrorist explosion, he feels the authorities are not pursuing the perpetrators for political reasons. So he decides – rather implausibly – to travel to Colombia to seek out the terrorists himself.

Maybe it would sing better with a more capable actor in the lead role, but Arnie’s performances have often struggled without a sci-fi or fantasy crutch to prop them up. And here he really feels lacklustre and laboured. At least there are some fun supporting roles, with Elias Koteas, John Turturro and John Leguizamo all working hard to elevate the flat script. The film passes the time but won’t linger in many people’s memories.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Any other year, Collateral Damage would have been exciting, big-budget action entertainment, but after 9/11 it just didn’t work… It felt both irrelevant and painful to watch in light of the actual events.’

Five prison breaks out of 10

Next time: Total Recall

The Last Stand (2013, Kim Jee-woon)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheLastStand

Watched: 21 August 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD I bought from a branch of CEX while on holiday in Whitby, North Yorkshire, in February 2019. It cost £1.
Seen before? No.

Review: Arnie’s first leading role after his seven-year stint as Governor of California sees him as local sheriff Ray Owens, a man who lives in a sleepy border town where everyone knows each other and Harry Dean Stanton is a cantankerous farmer. But the film often feels bored by this setting and its characters, because we cut away for long stretches to Forest Whitaker’s FBI agent. He inhabits a coarse, CSI/techno-thriller world and is called into action when an elaborate heist busts a drugs kingpin free from federal custody. (Meanwhile, back in Somerton, Arizona, Arnie gets a call from a woman who’s worried because her morning milk hasn’t been delivered.)

The criminal – Eduardo Noriega’s stunningly uninteresting Gabriel Cortez – then speeds off in an easily recognisable, one-of-a-kind, 1000-horsepower Corvette ZR1. It’s a sub-Fast & Furious plan to race for the Mexican border, and when Ray gets wind of it he and his cohorts (Luis Guzmán, an irritating Johnny Knoxville, Jaimie Alexander from the Thor films) prepare for the kingpin’s arrival in their town…

There are half-hearted nods here and there towards the Western genre, but the film is overwhelmed to the point of suffocation by macho A-Team action and misfiring comedy. There’s an appalling script – heavy on jarring exposition, light on any character depth – and some truly dreadful bad guys. This could have been Schwarzenegger’s Copland or Logan, a meditative drama about an ageing tough guy in an increasingly unhinged world. Instead it’s more like his Death Wish 5.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘With that movie, a lot of the pressure did fall on me. In fact, the script had been written for me… It’s a great, great role. The sheriff knows if he succeeds, it will mean everything to his town. His reputation is on the line. Is he really over the hill or can he do it?’

Four wheat fields out of 10

Next time: Collateral Damage

The Villain (1979, Hal Needham)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheVillain

Watched: 17 August 2019
Format: I’d recorded the film from the amazing TV channel Talking Pictures on 3 May 2019.
Seen before? Never. I’d not even heard of it before researching this blog.

Review: Who knew that, early in his film career, Arnold Schwarzenegger played a major role in a comedy Western that mixes the spoofiness of Carry On Cowboy with the physics-defying gags of a Wile E Coyote cartoon? Not me, anyway. This movie’s tone is set up early on: after a lengthy title sequence full of Monument Valley grandeur, we’re introduced to an enigmatic loner played by a game Kirk Douglas. Jack Slade attempts to jump onto the roof of a speeding train… only to miss it and fall flat on his face. This hapless crook then does a deal with a corrupt banker to steal some cash that’s being transported across country by a woman called Charming Jones (Ann-Margret, flirty and funny).

However, she has a protector: a handsome stranger actually called Handsome Stranger, played by a spectacularly miscast Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bulk of the film is episodic nonsense as Slade makes several idiotic attempts to nab the money, often with Charming and Stranger oblivious to what’s going on. Bless him, at this stage of his career all Arnie really had to offer was his body-builder’s physique – and the role of Stranger doesn’t especially need it. His stilted line-readings and charisma vacuum are difficult issues to ignore.

The Villain is directed by stunt expert Hal Needham, who was then in the middle of making assorted Smokey and the Bandits and Cannonball Runs, but this pushes even further into childish humour than any of those movies. There’s slapstick, cartoon absurdity (even a real-life recreation of the paint-a-tunnel-on-a-rock-face gag), lots of awful ‘comedy’ sound effects, an intelligent horse, a sexist ending, and white actors playing Native Americans as if they were from the Midwest. Fun at times but the shallowness doesn’t sustain.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘The name of my character was Handsome Stranger and the rest of the movie was just as lame… The best thing I can say about it is that I improved my horse-riding skills.’

Five runaway horses out of 10

Next time: The Last Stand

The Running Man (1987, Paul Michael Glaser)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheRunningMan

Watched: 10 August 2019
Format: DVD. I’d owned a copy for years, but then the week before I started this blogging process I was in Fopp – a wonderful shop near London’s Covent Garden – and upgraded to a reissue with extras and commentaries.
Seen before? Yes, several times over the last 30 years. 

Review: The first film picked out of the Schwarzenegger hat is a pleasingly relevant one: sci-fi flick The Running Man may have been released in 1987, but most of the story is set in 2019… and I started the research for this odyssey in August 2019. I first saw this film on VHS as a child and have always adored it for its fast-paced, gleefully bonkers vibe. We’re in an 80s vision of a dystopian future made up of haves (corporate types, celebrities, attractive women), have-nots (slums, hobos, resistance fighters), tech-noir aesthetics and overt commercialisation.

It’s a violent, harsh and cynical plot, which sees Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ex-cop Ben Richards framed for a massacre then forced to compete on a garish TV game show that features duels-to-the-death with spandex-suited ‘stalkers’. Sadly, we must admit that Arnie is not quite the actor this kind of story requires and his character comes off as pretty facile; the James Bond-style quips also ring hallow.

But as a satire of the crassness of reality TV, the movie gets more and more depressingly insightful with every passing year. What once seemed fanciful is now only a degree or so off-truth. There’s also a lot of other kitsch pleasures in this film, such as the crazy casting choices (an ex-NFL star, a wrestler, the drummer from Fleetwood Mac) and some terrific electronic incidental music from Harold Faltermeyer. It’s rough round the edges, but so much fun.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘The Running Man didn’t turn out as well as it should have… the film was totally screwed up by hiring a first-time director [Starsky & Hutch actor Paul Michael Glaser] and not giving him time to prepare.’

Eight court-appointed theatrical agents out of 10

Next: The Villain

Terminator Salvation (2009, McG)

Salvation

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

During a war with sentient machines, John Connor is given a mission to storm the opposition’s headquarters. Meanwhile, a mysterious man can’t remember anything since his own death 15 years earlier…

Main characters:

* Top billed is Christian Bale, playing the third on-screen John Connor we’ve had in this series. (The fourth if you count a cameo of an older version in 2029. The fifth if you count a TV series. More on that later…) After the teen of T2 and the twenty-something of T3, John is now a man of 33 (ie, the age that another idealistic JC was when he was crucified) and is fighting for the human resistance forces in the post-apocalyptic war we’ve been told about since the original movie. It’s a tough, harsh, cold world as the few remaining humans attempt to combat all-powerful metallic overlords. John has yet to reach his destiny position as the movement’s leader, however; here, in 2018, he has superiors whose orders he doesn’t always agree with. When he meets a cyborg with no love for the enemy, Skynet, John is not enamoured but reluctantly joins forces with him to mount a rescue of some humans prisoners. (That’s right, even after his experiences the previous two films, this John Connor finds it hard to believe that a cyborg might be a good guy.) Bale gives a typically po-faced, deadly serious performance, often doing little more than barking his dialogue into a handheld radio. The actor also famously lost his shit on set after the director of photography distracted him during a take. (To be fair to Bale, he later apologised profusely.)

* When we first meet Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), it’s in a prologue set before Judgment Day. He’s on death row after a criminal incident that killed his own brother and some police officers. Soon before his execution he’s persuaded to donate his body to Cyberdyne – the tech company featured in the earlier films. Then, much later, an understandably discombobulated Marcus awakens in a nightmarish future: 15 years have passed, there’s been an apocalypse, the machines have taken over, he’s not aged a day, and he’s very clearly not dead any more. WTF? He soon encounters murderous robots, but is saved by a man called Kyle Reese who says he’s a member of the human resistance… Then, after a big action sequence that should have killed Marcus, we learn that he is actually a cyborg. (He’s more shocked by this spectacularly obvious ‘plot twist’ than we are.) Turns out, he was built by Skynet to be an agent who could unknowingly infiltrate the resistance and get close to its figurehead, John Connor. Having met John, what does the cyborg Marcus do? Does he assassinate him? Take him prisoner? No, he’s so outraged by what’s been done to him that he agrees to help John defeat Skynet… Did the IT boffins not see that one coming?! Worthington is nominally this film’s lead actor, and in fact there are rumours that initially Marcus was the POV character throughout. (Then Christian Bale was hired, necessitating a swelling of John Connor’s role. Before that, Connor had been a cameo.) But the actor plays the part too tough-guy for us to care much about him.

* Kyle Reese is, of course, younger than when we knew him in the original Terminator movie. He hasn’t yet travelled back to 1984, he hasn’t heard of Sarah Connor, and he hasn’t even met John Connor. Young and impulsive – and just a bit cynical – he constitutes the LA branch of the resistance. He gets to wheel out one of the franchise’s key lines of dialogue – ‘Come with me if you want to live…’ – but is later captured by the machine forces, which provides John (who knows Kyle will one day go back in time and be his father) with the motivation to rescue Skynet’s human hostages. Kyle is played by Anton Yelchin, who fails to remind us of Michael Biehn’s original in any way beyond having the same name.

* Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) is a resistance pilot who crashes near Marcus after a big action sequence, so he helps her disentangle from her parachute cables. As he has knowledge about Skynet’s forces, she takes him to see her boss John Connor… Blair is certainly a sexy character, and it’s not a bad performance, but she’s a perfunctory role. She’s just there to move Marcus from plot point to plot point.

Other characters:
* Dr Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) is the woman who comes to Marcus’s prison cell in 2003 and gets him to sign away his body to Cyberdyne. He twigs that she’s a cancer suffering whose time is running out. Later, in 2018, Skynet’s AI mainframe uses her likeness when talking to Marcus.
* General Hugh Ashdown, played by the dependably gruff Michael Ironside, is a resistance bigwig who clashes with the impetuous John.
* John’s wife and confidant, Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard), is no longer the vet we met in Terminator 3. Now she’s shifted to human medicine, all the better for fixing up war casualties. She’s also pregnant. Despite a new actress, she’s still a fairly boring character who only really exists on the periphery of the plot.
* Barnes, played by rapper Common, is one of John’s lieutenants.
* Sarah Connor’s voice is heard when John plays some of the cassettes of advice she made for him in the 1980s. Linda Hamilton returned to rerecord the lines so that new inelegant information could be crowbarred in. (‘This is tape number 28. It’s Sarah Connor to my son, John’).
* Star (Jadagrace Berry) is a mute child who hangs out with Kyle. She seems to have psychic powers of some kind – or maybe just an uncanny sixth sense.

Where: The prologue takes place in Longview State Correctional Facility. When we cut to the future the events range across California – taking in both LA and San Fransisco. John also has a diversion out to sea, because the resistance’s headquarters are housed on board a submarine (cute idea). When on land, Terminator Salvation’s vision of a nuclear-winter West Coast amounts to either dusty, arid scrub and deserted highways, or bland, bombed-out ruins of cities. Other than the obvious broad strokes, the locations and production design do little to texture the story.

When: The opening scene is set in 2003 – so before the events depicted in Terminator 3. The bulk of the movie is then in 2018, which is some years after Judgment Day in this new Terminator timeline. At one point, Marcus says he was born on 22 August 1975, making him 28 in the prison scene.

I’ll be back: Partly because he was then the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger was not directly involved in this fourth Terminator movie. So here his famous catchphrase is instead said by John Connor before he leaves for a mission. Schwarzenegger does, however, still have a hefty presence in the film. Making use of CG technology that was then quite new and is now becoming a cliche, we see a T-800 burst out of a metallic booth and attack John. It looks exactly (well, nearly exactly) like a 1984 Arnie and the incidental music clangs heavy with the famous old Terminator cue. It’s a remarkably impressive visual effect, and the scene does actually make plot sense too as John has stumbled across the T-800 development lab.

Spin-off: In the year before Terminator Salvation’s release, a TV off-shoot called The Sarah Connor Chronicles had begun airing. Starring Lena Headey as Sarah and Thomas Dekker as John, it was a sequel to the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (in other words, it ignored Terminator 3 and created *yet another* alternate timeline). The story saw Sarah, John and a reprogrammed Terminator protector (Summer Glau) evading Skynet agents sent from the future while attempting to avert the coming apocalypse. After a fun-enough start, the series soon lost its lustre and was axed after 31 episodes across two seasons.

Review: It seems that eras tend to get the Terminator film they deserve. In 1984, cinema was in the wake of visionary and impactful science-fiction movies like Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner; it was also the golden age of slashers such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. So therefore James Cameron’s original Terminator blended the two genres, creating something as smart as it was stylish; as downbeat as it was intense; as much a horror film as it is a sci-fi. Seven years later and the world had moved on. Hollywood budgets had grown, as had the digital technology available to filmmakers, so Terminator 2: Judgment Day added huge spectacle, revolutionary CGI and 1990s confidence to the mix. By the time the series reached Salvation, cinema had evolved again. The noughties saw a rush of sequels and reboots that took their subject matters more seriously than previous incarnations – see for example 2005’s Batman Begins (with Christian Bale), 2006’s Casino Royale and 2009’s Star Trek (with Anton Yelchin). Terminator Salvation nominally does the same trick as those films, but what it lacks in comparison is dynamism. The best of that era’s series relaunches tell their stories with pace and style and just the right amount of character complexity. They’re also often *fun*, even while being much less frivolous than, say, Batman Forever or Moonraker. But Salvation is a dour, drab and depressingly straight-ahead film. It has a grimy and colourless visual palette, which is at least in keeping with the shallow characters, broad-stroke emotions and functional plotting. There’s no *heart* to any of it. This is also very much a sci-fi war film, overloaded with bombastic action (admittedly including some fun long takes) and Terminator tech that feels like it’s been cut-and-paste from another noughties reboot: 2007’s Transformers movie.

Five two-day-old coyotes out of 10

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, Jonathan Mostow)

Terminator3

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A few years after his encounter with a cyborg assassin from the future, John Connor faces another deadly threat…

Main characters:

 * Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career had been tailing off alarmingly in the lead-up to this third Terminator movie. Bored perhaps of the diminishing returns of his late-90s action duds, he returned to his most notable role 19 years since his debut in the series… When this film’s T-800 arrives in the present day – we all know the time-traveller-from-the-future score by now, right? – he has the same mission as his predecessor in Terminator 2: to protect John Connor from an assassination attempt. He hunts for John and finds him just in time to save the now 20-something from another Terminator, a stern, expressionless, female-looking cyborg called a T-X. After a few major action sequences, he gets John and his friend Kate to safety, then the plot kicks into another gear at the hour mark when the T-800 reveals that Kate’s dad holds the key to Skynet taking over the world… which is about to enter a nuclear winter later that day. The cyborg wants to take John and Kate to Mexico, to avoid the fallout from the first bombs, but John argues that they need to stop the self-aware computer system Skynet from starting its attack… In his third go at this character type, Schwarzenegger – now in his mid-50s – still has the expressionless face and drone voice. But the steel and intensity from the first film have gone. So too has the character development from the second. 

* In the first of many lazily sexist aspects of the character, when the T-X (played by Kristanna Loken) time-travels into the present day she lands in the shop window of an upmarket clothes store. Ha, ha – women really like clothes, right? As with the previous Terminators earlier in the series, she’s naked when he arrives – so quickly steals a passing woman’s tight-fitting leather suit. Then, when the cops pull her over for speeding, the T-X takes inspiration from a nearby Victoria’s Secret billboard and artificially enlarges her breasts. She’s also later jokingly called the Terminatrix. (It’s all a far cry from Arnie’s intimidating ‘Your clothes: given them to me’ in the 1984 movie.) The T-X’s mission differs from Arnie in film one and the T-1000 in film two. As she doesn’t know where John Connor is in this time period, she wants to murder the young people who will grow up to be his associates and allies; they’re all now innocent kids going about their lives. A cross between the metallic, battering-ram rigidity of a T-800 and the fluid, restorative nature of the T-1000, the T-X has some nifty qualities. She can analysis blood by licking it – another idea you can imagine the writers jumping to because they knew the character would be played by an attractive woman – and can remotely control other machines (such as cars). She lacks the impact of her forebears. She also doesn’t have the James Cameron-style sci-fi plausibility of the earlier bad guys, coming off more like a comic-book villain.

* John Connor is lost when we first meet him, in more ways than one. Judgment Day never happened, thanks to his and his mother’s efforts in Terminator 2, but now the grown-up John lives off the grid, drifting from job to job and having nightmares. (He’s also all alone in the world: mum Sarah died of leukaemia not long after averting the end of the world.) When he breaks into a veterinarians’ to steal some painkillers for a leg injury, the wiry and jumpy John encounters an old school friend who works there – Kate Brewster, with whom he once shared a childhood kiss. Then two Terminators show up – one out to kill him, one out to protect him. Kate is also a target because, we learn, she will one day marry John and be his closest advisor in the future war with the machines. (Yes, that’s right: it turns out that the events of the previous film have only *delayed* Judgment Day, not written it off entirely. The enigmatic empty-road metaphor that ended T2 is well and truly pissed on.) When John and Kate team up with their protector from the future, the T-800, John has to be a bit of a moron for script-exposition reasons and keep forgetting that this cyborg is not the same one he met when he was 10. But when he realises there’s a chance to stop Judgment Day (again), John smartens up and shows some of the leadership qualities we’ve always been told he has. He orders the T-800 to help him and Kate reach the Skynet central computer so they can destroy it before it launches its attack on humanity… T2’s Edward Furlong was originally signed up to reprise the role, but was going through some much-publicised drug problems, so a change was decided upon. Drafted in to replace him was Nick Stahl (who’s actually two years younger than Furlong). He gives a decent enough performance, but because the character is damaged and lonely and bitter, he can’t bring in any of the cheek and swagger that Furlong had established.

* Kate is a young woman who thinks she has a nice-enough life: a fiancé, a job, a good relationship with her loving dad. But all that comes crashing down quickly. When she’s called to the vets’ surgery where she works at 4am to deal with an anxious cat-lady, she finds John – who she recognises from her school days – hiding in the back room. He tries to take her hostage, but she disarms him with ease and locks him up while she calls the cops. However, then the T-X shows up intent on killing them both… Kate is another character initially cast with someone else, but Sophia Bush was released after a month of filming because it was deemed she looked too young. Claire Danes replaced her and gives a fairly vanilla performance.

Other characters:
* Kate’s boyfriend, Scott Mason (Mark Farniglietti), seems a pretty boring bloke so it’s not a huge tug on our emotions when he’s brutally killed and then impersonated by the T-X.
* Kate’s dad, Lieutenant General Robert Brewster (David Andrews), is a military bigwig at a US military base inside a mountain. He’s the programme director of Cyber Research Systems, an autonomous weapons division… In other words, Skynet – the operating system that will eventually become sentient and declare war on humanity. At the start of the story, he’s dealing with a computer virus and is urged by a colleague to use a revolutionary new AI to clear out the problem. However, Lieutenant General Brewster wants to keep ‘humans in the loop.’ When various civilian and military computer systems begin crashing, he has no option to activate Skynet… which immediately locks itself off and takes over.
* A secondary character from the first two Terminator movies, Dr Silberman (Earl Boen), gets a superfluous, silly and irritating cameo during a sequence at the tomb that supposedly houses Sarah Connor’s remains. (The T-800 reveals that she was actually cremated; the tomb is a secret weapons store.)
* In a scene cut from the finished film, Arnold Schwarzenegger played another character. Sergeant Candy is the US serviceman who’s been chosen to be the model for a new line of human-looking super soldier. In other words, the T-800s Arnie has been playing since 1984. Candy’s accent is Southern American, but it’s said they can replace that with something more neutral. Probably best this piece of continuity-woven nonsense was dropped.

Where: John moves around early in the film, appearing in various unspecified areas of America. The T-X arrives in Beverly Hills; the T-800 in the desert outside LA. After locating John and Kate, the T-800 drives them south back into the desert – intent on heading into Mexico. Then stop off at a cemetery before heading to a military research base two hours’ drive away and then ultimately the Crystal Peak instillation in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

When: Okay, things are getting complicated now. In voiceover, John tells us that the events of Terminator 2 happened over 10 years ago. That means this film’s story is playing out two or three years into the future (its cinema release was in 2003). However, John also claims that he was 13 when he encountered the T-1000. Given that it’s been established that John was born in 1985 and Judgment Day was due in 1997, the stated age of 13 seems to be a continuity error based on the age of actor Edward Furlong, who was 13 when he played John in the second film. We’re also now in a new timeline where that Judgment Day didn’t happen, of course, which causes all kinds of logical complexities that we’d be better off ignoring. The present scenes in Terminator 3 begin during night – it’s late enough that a shopping district is deserted, but a nightclub is still open – and continues through the next day, which is the delayed Judgment Day. It’s due to kick off at 6.18pm.

I’ll be back: Given that the threat in this film looks like a woman, Arnie gives his catchphrase a twist: referring to the T-X, he says, ‘She’ll be back.’ Later, she completes the gag when she says, ‘I’m back,’ after emerging from the wreck of a crashed helicopter. Arnie also says later ‘I’m back,’ when the T-800 comes out of a reprogrammed befuddlement. Since the previous Terminator movie, Schwarzenegger had continued to treat audiences to his favourite phrase, almost like a singer wheeling out an old hit. In 1993’s Last Action Hero,­ a clever spoof of the type of movies that had made Arnie’s name,­ his character, Jack Slade, tells a young friend, ‘I’ll be back… Ha, you didn’t know I was going to say that, did you?’ The lad, Danny, who is aware of his Schwarzenegger’s fictional persona, is unimpressed: ‘That’s what you always say… Everybody waits for you to say it. It’s like your calling card.’ The phrase is quoted a couple of other times elsewhere in the film too, then appeared in 1994 comedy Junior (‘It’s nice to be back’) and the terrible sci-fi flick The 6th Day in 2000 (‘I might be back,’ Arnie says to a sales assistant. ‘Oh, you’ll be back,’ comes the knowing reply).

Review: There’s a definite drop-off of quality from the first two Terminator movies, almost inevitably because writer/director James Cameron was not involved. (He’d sold his interest in the franchise to other producers.) For one thing, there’s little intrigue in the storytelling. It’s assumed that we’ve all seen the earlier films and no attempt is made to disguise what’s going on, so everything feels very ‘surface’. Elements of goofy humour – Arnie deadpan as he puts on disco sunglasses is the worst offender – have crept in, and there’s a sense that the filmmakers have thrown in sequences and moments on the basis of ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if?’ rather than character-based scripting. Did we really need a tiresome cameo from Sarah Connor’s psychiatric doctor? Did Sarah’s will stipulate that her stash of guns should be buried in a tomb for any reason other than a director’s wish for a cool shot as Arnold Schwarzenegger carries a casket on his shoulder while firing at police officers? However, there are also undoubted plusses. Terminator 3 is a competently shot movie and is pacey enough to keep the interest. Some of the action is world-class, especially the truly great chase sequence that sees the T-X hounding our heroes in a crane-truck, which is bombastic and enormously loud and destructive yet also staged and shot clearly and precisely for maximum impact. In its second half, the film also pulls of a bravado rug-pull. During their attempt to stop Skynet, John and Kate are told that the central operating system is contained in a bunker inside a mountain in Nevada. They race there with the help of the T-800, all the while chased by the T-X. But it was a con. The mountain base doesn’t contain the means to defeat Skynet. It’s a fallout shelter designed for VIPs. John and Kate realise there was never any way to stop Judgment Day. It was about surviving it so they could run the human resistance.

Seven hands (talk to them) out of 10