Termination time for Arnie

by DAMON SYSON, Evening Standard

This Saturday, film critics will be sipping champagne at a reception at Le Palais Bulles in Cannes to mark the imminent release of the summer's most expensive blockbuster sequel.

In it, a much-loved action hero will again save the world from evil robots in a specialeffects bonanza with lavish fight scenes.

No, it's not the much-trumpeted Matrix Reloaded, but Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which, in spite of a record-breaking price tag of $170 million, already feels as if it's being overshadowed by more avant-garde action fare.

It may be the world's most expensive film - in part due to star Arnold Schwarzenegger's reported $30 million fee - but rumours abound that, for all its cataclysmic humans-versus-robot spectacle, it's an empty action flick that could possibly be the final straw in 56-year-old Arnie's acting career.

He is even flying into the film festival this week to give the movie a muchneeded publicity boost.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Terminator franchise, it is, in reality, a mirror of Arnie's career. In the first instalment, 20 years ago, he played an impassive, moody and near-indestructible robot sent back in time to assassinate the woman whose unborn son - John Connor - will one day lead humans to victory against the machines.

It heralded the arrival of an improbable star, complete with funny accent.

Then, in 1991's Terminator 2, he is reprogrammed as a goody and charged with protecting the teenage Connor from an even nastier Terminator who can morph into different shapes.

Critics hailed T2 as a masterpiece and, with takings of $512 million, it made Arnie - still an improbable star with a funny accent - a major Hollywood player.

Now, with the joke wearing thin and astronomical costs, Terminator 3 (and Arnie, too) is looking very tired indeed.

Forget about the critics, though, it will be up to the public to decide whether Arnie's return to his signature role was a shrewd move, or simply cast-iron proof that his stock has plummeted following woeful copycat roles in End of Days, Last Action Hero and Collateral Damage.

As Schwarzenegger himself once said: "You never know how long you can survive as an action star - the only way you know is when the audience tells you. It's like politics, eventually people are just going to vote against you and you are out of office."

Now some might argue that 56 is a wee bit old to be playing the tough guy for a living. One could suggest - not to his face, of course - that T3 could be his last throw of the dice as an action hero.

Even Arnie said of his stunts: "When you get to be over 50, it's not as easy any more to recuperate and to come back as when you were 20 years old."

So if T3 fails to cut it in a summer schedule bristling with blockbusters, such as Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and The Hulk, will Arnie's "I'll be back" catchphrase sound like a hollow threat?

The T3 trailers doing the rounds look exciting enough, but early reports say that the script isn't great and that, although there is a new saucy-looking female robot (the Terminatrix), it is pretty much a retread of old territory.

The signs were not good from early on when James Cameron, who directed the first two instalments, decided not to get involved with the third. This must have come as a huge disappointment to Arnie, well aware as he is that his three biggest box-office triumphs, both Terminators and True Lies, were collaborations with Cameron.

Then - phase two of a crippling double whammy - actress Linda Hamilton dropped out, slamming the script as 'soulless'.

"Despite all the action of the first two Terminator movies," she said, "they were actually pretty high-minded. There was a message about the human condition. T3 seems to have no regard for human life whatsoever."

The final blow came when Edward Furlong, the actor who played the teenage John Connor in Terminator 2, was ruled out - apparently due to "prolonged troubles with the law and substance abuse".

The studio might have wondered if it was worth carrying on. Then again, maybe Arnie recognised that a big hit with T3 was the only way to resurrect his flagging career.

So if the film does disappoint, it will be all the more remarkable that he could demand $30 million (the biggest fee an actor has ever pocketed) and keep the momentum going for a project with a possibly duff script, a second-choice director and soap operastyle face change for one of its lead actors ( little-known Nick Stahl).

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