My Misspent Youth In Films...
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Directed by: James Cameron
Starring: Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong
Released: July 3, 1991
What I Thought Then
An epic action adventure, much better than the original, and it was great to see a different side of Leonardo DiCaprio and Chase from The Mickey Mouse Club. (Yes, I thought both of those actors were in this movie... neither of them are.)
What I Think Now
This is the best film in the entire Terminator franchise, full-stop, no qualifiers. Every other movie is bad except the first one, which is only fine (it has a good story and compelling action, but it's marred by clunky effects, saggy pacing, melodrama, and James Cameron's weird insistence on casting Bill Paxton as a "tough"). This one takes all the groundwork from the original movie and builds on it. It wastes very little time on exposition, assuming that even if you haven't seen The Terminator you're at least aware of it. It moves breezily from action beat to action beat, stopping only for some character moments and plot contrivances designed to set up the next action sequence. We want Arnold in an office building tearing cop cars to shreds with a minigun. Where'd he get the minigun? He got it from Sarah's ammo stash. Why does Sarah have an ammo stash? Well, after surviving her encounter with the first terminator, she joined up with some Nicaraguan gun runners to build up an arsenal for Judgment Day. It's all a bit ridiculous if you think about it, but you never stop to think about it because the movie doesn't let up. This is pure, late-night direct-to-cable action schlock elevated by its directing/acting talent and a decent budget.
And of course the big draw for this film was the T-1000, a character designed specifically to work within the constraints of digital effects technology. What can you do? Well, we can do face morphs and some cool stuff with silver blobs. Does it look real? Eh, not really. What if we had a shape-shifting villain who transitioned between forms by turning into a silver blob? Perfect! By modern standards, the lion's share of the visual effects look a little chintzy. Buuuuuuuuuuuut, you kind of don't care. There's just enough there for you to suspend your disbelief and accept that, yes, this police officer who sometimes looks like a cheap effect and sometimes looks like a stuntman in a silver suit and sometimes looks like Robert Patrick wearing foil squibs and metal arm extenders is actually a machine from the future trying to kill Edward Furlong. Massive credit has to go to Patrick's unearthly performance.
And hey, while we're paying kudos, let's also acknowledge that this role is maybe the perfect role for Schwarzeneggar. I've joked in a previous post that of all the roles this bodybuilding Austrian national played in the 80s and 90s, "unstoppable robotic killing machine from the future" is the least implausible. But I also kind of meant it. Most of his movies are trying to get the audience to ignore his otherworldly presence and impossible physique. This one uses its story conceit to make those things a feature rather than a bug. Arnold is intentionally wooden and detached, if no less charismatic on film. In fact, there's just a hint of self-parody going on here. The movie stops shy of having Arnold wink at the camera, but it comes close a few times. And all of this works in a story about a murderous robot from the future in a bit of a fish-out-of-water situation dealing with a kid.
So yeah, this film really works. There are a few details I noticed this time that I'd missed previously. When the T-1000 is flying the helicopter and shooting at the heroes, he's got an extra arm or two to make it easier to reload and fly at the same time. Sarah has a nice arc about rediscovering her humanity. At first she criticizes John for saving her from the hospital because it was too risky. But later, when she goes to kill Skynet head-honcho Miles Dyson in his home, in front of his family (including his wife, played by Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson--oh, hey, S. Epatha Merkerson's in this!), she finds she can't do it. John catches up with her stops her, and she thanks him for saving her. Because she didn't need to be saved physically. She needed to be saved on a more metaphysical level. It's a nice character beat that's easy to overlook because it's between action beats, but the film would be all the poorer if it weren't there.
I guess my only gripe is that--if I'm remembering things correctly--the marketing for the film gave away what I assume was supposed to be a twist at the end of Act I. The movie plays a little coy about who's who in the opening. The first confrontation between Arnold and the T-1000 is clearly set up as a big reveal. What? Arnold's the good guy? And the other guy is not human but in fact something even more deadly? So yeah, it's kind of a shame that audiences didn't get to experience that.
It's a bit schlocky and the effects haven't aged terribly well, but on the whole it holds up. Definitely worth revisiting.