Dir: Jonathan Mostow. US. 2003. 109 mins.

He's back alright, but how big an audience will come back to see Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator 12 years after the franchise's previous instalment, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, became a $500m global smash' The good news for distributors Warner and Sony is that, even without the help of franchise co-creator James Cameron, producers Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna have delivered a mega-budget action sci-fi movie whose astute blend of drama, humour and metal-crunching effects will certainly entertain both original franchise fans and younger moviegoers and could even attract a larger female contingent than the earlier films. What might ultimately limit Terminator 3's box office take are Schwarzenegger's diminished star power and comparisons to the more imaginative effects and philosophical themes of The Matrix and its ilk. Still, Warner, which launches Terminator 3 this Wednesday in the US, should be able to turn pent-up demand into an impressive gross over the Independence Day weekend before direct competition appears. And Sony (and independents in a couple of major territories) could do even better in international markets, where T2 did 60% of its business and where Schwarzenegger has retained more of his box office muscle.

In place of Cameron, Jonathan Mostow (U-571 and Breakdown) directs, from a well-crafted script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris (The Net) and Tedi Sarafian (Tank Girl). It soon becomes apparent that part of the new team's task was to leaven the franchise's old school macho action with more humour and more feminine elements.

When, for example, Schwarzenegger's T-101 cyborg arrives from the future in present day Los Angeles, he takes his familiar black leather get-up from a sassy male stripper. Rival, and much more advanced Terminator T-X (Loken), meanwhile, arrives in sexy female form and hijacks her clothes and transport on swanky Rodeo Drive.

Just like the cyborgs in the previous film, the T-101 and the T-X have been sent back on conflicting missions: the T-X is trying to kill John Connor (Stahl), the young man destined to lead the human resistance after self-aware machines initiate a nuclear holocaust, and the T-101 is trying to protect him (Judgment Day, it conveniently turns out, was not really averted in Terminator 2, just postponed). The action follows the two Terminators, Connor and his unsuspecting former schoolmate Kate (Danes) as they chase, first through the streets of LA and then to a secret military facility in the California desert. The jokey tone eventually turns more sombre, culminating in an ending that leaves the door open for another sequel but might seem surprisingly downbeat to US audiences in a celebratory Independence Day mood.

Mostow and the writers do a good job weaving drama, humour and action together, and though the film never achieves the dark intensity of Cameron's two instalments it is consistently engaging.

But the bulk of the film's energy (and presumably the bulk of its budget, variously reported as $150m and $200m) goes into a handful of action set pieces that Mostow orchestrates with considerable skill. The first, and most memorable, comes early on and echoes the riverbed chase from the second film. This time, 'bad' cyborg T-X drives a massive crane that cuts a spectacularly destructive swathe through city streets that were specially built for the sequence. Another set piece pits the two cyborgs against each other in vicious hand-to-hand combat, with Schwarzenegger's T-101 coming off worse.

Effects created by franchise veteran Stan Winston and Industrial Light & Magic help portray some of the street chase scenes and allow the T-X to morph between different human guises and eventually appear in its menacing skeletal form. As impressive as the effects are, however, they do not have the impact of the then-groundbreaking CG technology used to create the 'liquid metal' cyborg of Terminator 2.

Schwarzenegger looks to be in peak physical shape and handles his return to his most famous role (though this T-101 is supposed to be a different machine from the one in T2) extremely well. The comic delivery is as deadpan as ever and though his face might have a touch of world-weariness in it now that, in a way, serves his performance as a machine which knows its era is coming to an end. Loken (known to sci-fi fans from the Mortal Kombat: Conquest TV series) is suitably malicious as the unstoppable T-X.

Stahl (In The Bedroom) initially looks promising as the paranoid Connor (the grown-up version of the Edward Furlong character in T2) but fades somewhat when the role calls for a more commanding presence. Danes (last seen in The Hours) is not particularly well used in her part, which facilitates a major plot twist but feels mostly like a half-hearted attempt to give the story some romantic interest.

Prod cos: Intermedia/IMF, C2 Pictures, Mostow/Lieberman Productions.
Dist: Warner Bros (US), Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International (intl, excl Croatia, Egypt, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Puerto Rico, Romania, UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Syria).
Prods: Mario F Kassar, Andrew G Vajna, Joel B Michaels.
Exec prods: Moritz Borman, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Gale Anne Hurd.
Scr: John Brancato & Michael Ferris.
Story: John Brancato & Michael Ferris, Tedi Sarafian.
Director of Photography: Don Burgess.
Prod des: Jeff Mann.
Ed: Neil Travis, Nicolas De Toth.
Terminator make-up and animatronic effects: Stan Winston Studio.
Special visual effects and animation: Industrial Light & Magic.
Music: Marco Beltrami.
Main cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken.