It’s impossible to watch “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” without thinking about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s potential race for California governor. Many of the laugh lines he delivers in his signature killer-robot style could play a role in his upcoming campaign, as he emphasizes the faithful nature of his public service (“I’m programmed to follow your commands”), encourages righteous indignation against the Democratic incumbent (“Anger is more useful than despair”), justifies his own jokes as an aspiring politician (“Levity is good — it relieves tension and fear of death”) and even proclaims victory over his most entrenched and formidable opponent (“You’re terminated”).

Even without its topical resonance, the movie works reasonably well — delivering its expertly choreographed scenes of combat and pursuit at an efficient pace (the total running time is 109 minutes) and without the mystical, pseudo-intellectual clap-trap that nearly crushed “Hulk,” “The Matrix Reloaded” and, to a lesser extent, “X-2: X Men United.” If the result lacks the intensity and originality of the first “Terminator” (1984), and makes no attempt to replicate the epic sweep and emotional rewards of “T-2” (1991), it may especially appeal to younger movie goers with only dim memories of its predecessors and who should have no problem picking up the thrust of the plot.

A mopey everyman named Nick Stahl takes over the role of John Connor (played by the forgettable Edward Furlong in the previous installment), a slacker hero haunted by the knowledge that he’s destined to lead humanity’s resistance to all-powerful machines in a post-apocalyptic future. Once again, a super-sophisticated robot from the future travels back in time to liquidate the future leader before he can play his decisive role, while another cyborg (Big Arnold, of course) also arrives to protect him from harm. This time the nasty new machine takes the form of a 5’11” supermodel (Kristanna Loken) who wears a form-fitting red leather pant-suit and drives a stylish and silver Lexus SC 430 sports car. In addition to her mission in terminating mankind’s savior, she’s also supposed to kill a warm-hearted veterinarian (Claire Danes) who doesn’t yet know that she’s destined to become John Connor’s wife and second-in-command.

Ms. Danes brings unexpected depth and sympathy to her character, while Ms. Loken manages to look appropriately menacing despite her undeniable glamour, and actually makes you believe that she’s an unfeeling machine. Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, savors his role so visibly that he never seems convincingly mechanical. He’s having so much fun with the familiar material (and the record-breaking paycheck he reportedly received) that he introduces an element of ironic detachment, showing that he’s clearly in on the joke and he wants us all to feel more amused than scared. He also looks great — even in the discreet nude scene in which he makes his first appearance — showing no long-term ill effects from his well-publicized open heart surgery or from the heartless (and witless) “Collateral Damage.”

The slick special effects demonstrate the spectacular improvement in Computer Graphics technology in the 12 years since the previous film, and make for some compelling visuals during the dismantling and reassembling of the rival robots in their bruising battles. There’s also a guilty thrill to watching Arnold commit unspeakably violent acts against his svelte blonde rival: because she’s playing a machine, we’re not supposed to worry about a hulking and frowning muscle-man belting, bashing, tossing, shooting and mutilating a much younger female.

The voice-over narration in the name of John Connor offers plodding exposition more flat-footed than the stride of the Terminator himself. Consider the movie’s risible concluding line: “All I know is what The Terminator taught me. Never stop fighting. And I never will. The battle has just begun.”

Fortunately at that point the movie has just ended. Director Jonathan Mastow (who brought the same unfussy if unimaginative competence to his prior film, the submarine drama “U-571”) steps in effectively for James Cameron, who now assumes that killer robots from the future count as unworthy of his Titanic gifts.

This latest terminator, however, makes the most of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s far more limited talents as well as his compelling political situation. If the film had tuned out to be a flat out disaster (it’s far from it) it might have served to deflate his upcoming campaign. Had it proven itself a critical darling and another sci-fi masterpiece (not a chance) the star would have faced intense pressure to keep his movie career going strong. This middle-of-the-road achievement, in other words, means that his acting status isn’t too cold, and it’s not too hot. When it comes to a potential leap into politics, it’s just right: like Ronald Reagan in 1966,

Schwarzenegger faces fading but respectable stardom, and may well appear next in a yet-to be-scripted melodrama “The Rise of the (Political) Machine.”

Rated R, for science fiction violence, brief partial nudity – but no more disturbing for even young teenagers than any number of recent PG-13 movies. TWO AND A HALF STARS.


Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated daily radio show focusing on the intersection of politics and pop culture.  He's the author of eight non-fiction books, was co-host for 12 years on "Sneak Previews" on PBS, and is the former Chief Film Critic for the New York Post.