Saying you like a brutal franchise picture like Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines because of the grace notes probably sounds as persuasive as saying you buy Maxim for the articles. But that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Jonathan Mostow, who directed the estimable genre pictures Breakdown and U-571, brings some welcome gusts of humor and a smidgen of humanity to T3. Still, he can't cut loose from crash-and-dash chases and robot-crushing wrestling matches that for some of us turned tedious even in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The good news is that Schwarzenegger is more entertaining than ever as the Terminator T-101 cyborg. He's sent back in time this time to save both mankind's twentysomething savior, John Connor (Nick Stahl), and the woman who will figure in his destiny, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), from assassinations ordered by the conquering computers of the future. The cyborg hell-bent on destroying them is the most destructive Terminator model yet: the female-figured T-X, who has the devilishly alluring form of model-turned-actress Kristanna Loken.
Mostow, a much better actor's director than James Cameron (who did the first two Terminator movies), keeps Schwarzenegger clicking and clacking on parallel tracks. He's both a cyborg in mission mode and a performer who knows himself and his audience so well that he can suggest a self-aware wit without succumbing to self-parody.
Of course, the Terminator's entrance through a time portal that at one point resembles a glittering disco ball just about defines camp (hilariously so). He invades a saloon's Ladies' Night and rips the leather off of a male stripper. But once Schwarzenegger smashes a pair of Elton John-ish glasses under his heel, you know the humor will emerge mostly from how fiercely he means business. Mostow understands that this antihero's matter-of-fact responses to impending Armageddon can - with precise timing - ignite his deadpan and make it sizzle with humor.
Mostow is equally adroit with Loken, whose entrance in a Beverly Hills shop window has a magical rustle to it. T-X's appropriation of a with-it Rodeo Drive matron's look and car, and imitation of a Victoria's Secret ad, pack a one-two audiovisual punch line. The T-X outdoes the T-1000 of T2 in malleability and power - not only can she turn her forearm into a variety of lethal weapons, but she can also control other machines.
Loken doesn't overdo the sadistic witch stuff; she has a sneaky smile that makes her seem, oh, just homicidally mischievous. With her, as with Schwarzenegger, Mostow applies some fragrant touches; when T-X transforms a finger into a long thin break-in tool, it resembles the creepy metallic fingernails of a villainess in a Fu Manchu pulp novel.
In between are Danes and Stahl as characters whose previous closest contact was making out in a neighbor's basement a decade before. It's one of the movie's happier conceits that they revert to middle-school attitudes. When this sometimes punky Brewster tells Connor his bad-boy bit is getting old, it's as if the two are doing an episode of That '80s Show with feeling.
Yet is that enough of a human anchor when the world lies in the balance? A lot of what works here amounts to defensive measures. You can giggle at Mostow's shrewdness when he elicits a soft, smarmy performance from the actor who plays Brewster's fiance - you know you're not supposed to get too fond of him. But the director's cleverness doesn't connect you any deeper to the material. I enjoyed both the seriocomic homages to movies past (this picture has a better Planet of the Apes ending than the remake of Planet of the Apes) and the bits of satire strewn throughout the film, especially a riff on the annoyingly all-knowing trauma shrink.
The stumbling-block - and it's a big one - is that they're a respite from the main work of the movie: staging fights that get their dubious charge from our knowledge that the cyborgs only look human, and vehicular rampages that destroy heavy metal or entire city blocks. Mostow does carnage with more lucidity and concision and game-playing exuberance than the Wachowskis in The Matrix Reloaded. But he achieves a Pyrrhic victory at best.
Even a Terminator picture has to be about something. This one isn't even about what it says it's about. John Connor kicks the movie off by declaring, like Lawrence of Arabia, that the future has not been written - that there's no future but what we make for ourselves. Unfortunately, any fleshing-out of that idea remains for Terminator IV. Connor and Brewster, with T-X nipping at their heels, mostly follow the Terminator's lead; the moment when they think they're bargaining with him, he has them exactly where he wants them.