Well-oiled machines

Schwarzenegger returns to tangle with the latest 'Terminator'

The big question about 'Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines' is not whether it's any good. It's whether you want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in movies or in politics.

Because if 'T3' tanks like Schwarzenegger's last few movies, you can bet Conan the Republican is going to take his sword to some hanging chads. After all, if his movies keep losing money, he won't be rich enough to qualify for a tax cut.

So cast your vote in one of the few remaining true democracies Ñ the movie box office. Let's keep the big guy where he can do the least damage.

And you can cast that box-office ballot with confidence because Ñ surprise! Ñ 'T3' is a blast. Even sans James Cameron, it delivers the goods in breezily rampaging fashion.

Though it lacks the ambition, grandeur and brooding intensity of 'The Hulk,'

director Jonathan Mostow hammers out the second-best blockbuster so far this summer, more consistent and fun than 'The Matrix Reloaded' and, in spite of a nonstop frenzy of action, less damaging than the brain rape of 'Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.'

Set 10 years after 'T2,' this one has young John Connor (Nick Stahl, a perfectly fine replacement for Edward Furlong) once again marked for death in the machine-ruled future. The latest in termination technology, the slinky TX (Kristanna Loken, a sort of Ÿber-Alyssa Milano) is sent back to do the job, followed of course by the now-obsolete original model (played by you-know-who) hot off a rebel-maintained assembly line.

The ensuing mayhem uses the previous 'Terminators' for thrust, and barrels along swiftly with a style that mingles the original's grit and the liquid-metal gleam of 'T2.'

The frequently self-referential humor is released in nicely timed bursts that brake short of self-parody, allowing 'Ah-nuld' to keep his familiar routine fresh. Too bad Loken lacks the subtlety to introduce wit to the TX's sleek mutability. But some pleasing plot mutations remain in keeping with the mythology of the previous entries, including an unexpected, potentially 'downbeat' final touch that proves oddly satisfying.

It's a nifty career bump for Mostow, who worked his way up to this from the surprisingly exciting road thriller 'Breakdown' and the solid 'U-571.' He's hardly a master yet, but at least he aims to make movies rather than commercials.

Mostow has a very welcome sense of economy and pacing Ñ the film clocks in at less than two hours Ñ and gives the action the kind of whiplash snap that sends you out on a gust of good cheer.

An early chase employing vehicles of increasing sizes becomes a hilariously escalating wreckstravaganza that blows the freeway chase in 'Reloaded' to the shoulder. And the fight scenes are wall-splintering clobberfests delightfully free of tired cyber-fu.

Mostow uses digital effects but doesn't worship them. To say 'T3' feels mechanical is, ironically, to praise it in this airbrushed age of CGI. It clanks and grinds and rumbles along with a kind of old-fashioned hands-on physicality that transforms what might seem an obsolete model into something almost endearingly human.

And if it keeps the Austrian Oak on screen and out of the statehouse, call it apocalypse postponed. Next stop: 'Grumpy Old Conan.'