Terminator 2: Judgment Day

(1991) **** Pg-13
137 min. Carolco Pictures. Director: James Cameron. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Earl Boen.

Okay, it's not The Godfather, Part II, but I have a serious soft-spot for the smashing sequel stylings of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron's high-octane follow-up to 1984's The Terminator.

Where The Terminator was spare, Terminator 2: Judgment Day pulls out the stops, setting the gold standard for expensive, explosive summer blockbusters. Cameron occasionally oversteps (I'm thinking here of overly sentimental touches like a strategically placed "thumb's up" from the T101), but at the bottom line, T2 delivers a feast of pulse-pounding action, elegantly conceived and finely tuned. Tremendous stuntwork, jaw-dropping effects (which haven't aged a day in over a decade on the shelf), and emotional underpinnings combine for a sharp, smooth, creative science-fiction actioner.

Cameron sets out to repeat the first film's sensory motifs while upgrading them (to this end, makeup artist Stan Winston, composer Brad Fiedel, and cinematographer Adam Greenberg all return to reap the exponentially larger budget). The filmmaker comes out swinging with a redux-done-right of "the war against the machines," rendered with greater detail and special-effects panache. Linda Hamilton returns, having undergone a steely transformation into a tautly muscular, anguished, venom-spitting Cassandra; in an inversion of the first film's toughening character arc, Sarah Connor's challenge is to soften up and rediscover her own humanity. Cameron also cleverly reincorporates Earl Boen's despicable Dr. Silberman as a foil for the institutionalized Sarah.

While Sarah languishes, her delinquent, adolescent son John (Edward Furlong) suffers under quarrelsome foster parents. This unlikely hero--as Terminator fans well know--is apparently destined to become the hope of humanity as the leader of the rebel resistance against tyrannical artificial intelligence in a post-apocalyptic future. But for now, he's ripping off ATMs to fund video game binges at the mall. So there, nagging parents...your lazy son really will amount to something one day! As sensitively played by first-timer Furlong, John Connor is an emotionally wounded spitfire on the cusp of young adulthood.

Before long, two Terminators are hunting for John. One, sent by the machines, wants him dead. The other, the reprogrammed hope of the rebels, has been (or, rather, will be) instructed to protect the boy. In a clever spin on the star's career and the juiced-up sequel's status, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the good cyborg this time (Model 101), while Robert Patrick plays the "younger," faster "advanced prototype," the infernal T-1000.

Escalating the unstoppable image of Terminators, the T-1000 is the gift that keeps on giving, made of a mimetic poly-alloy (mighty morphin' liquid metal) that allows cosmetically flawless disguises and quick regeneration. The T-1000 takes repeated lickings--like being riddled with gun blasts and split in two--and keeps on ticking. He can turn his arms into metal picks (the better to spear your moving car, my dear) and pull neat parlor tricks like instantly making his back his front in a fast-moving brawl. An outstanding performance by Patrick firmly sells the effects by Industrial Light and Magic: the actor sprints like a machine (if you can imagine such a thing), with a burrowing, level glare and perfectly balanced movement.

Cameron's in-camera effects are equally impressive. Using a palette of cool blues and fierce reds (and an extended finale involving liquid nitrogen and molten lava), the director establishes the cold-warm dichotomy of machine-vs.-human form and emotion-vs.-detachment function. Indelible visions range from the franchise spawning image of a cyborg emerging from a wall of flames to an astonishing chase involving a big-rig cab, a Harley, and a moped to a terrifying, visceral rendering of a nuclear blast wiping out a sunny playground.

Cameron and co-writer William Wisher (who also consulted on the first film) finesse more incisive dialogue, which serves the talents of Hamilton--who hits her psychiatric evaluation out of the park--and a pitch-perfect Joe Morton as the sympathetically flawed family man who's the unwitting Oppenheimer of the tale. Schwarzenegger also turns in a nicely modulated performance as the reprogrammed Terminator, who develops a curiosity about human nature and becomes the bizarre foster father in a strangely touching "boy and his cyborg" subplot. Cameron repeats the beats of the first film, reminding us that "The future is not set," and allows Arnie yet another signature one-liner: "Hasta la vista, baby." Like the first film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day chases itself into a warehouse for a time's-up ending, but you gotta give it up: T2 is a super-cool movie ride with kick-ass characters and comic-book verve to spare.

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