The third sequel directed by James Cameron - but only the first sequel to a film he'd overseen originally - Terminator 2: Judgment Day holds a very special place in my heart; like a great many American males of my age, this was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, or at least the first that I ever saw in the full and certain knowledge that it was R-rated, and that it was some kind of coming-of-age event to sit down and see it for the first time. I mention this not because I think that the anecdote is interesting in and of itself - of course it isn't, some two-thirds of the people I know born between 1981 and 1983 seem to have had the same experience - but because it means that my feelings towards T2 (aye, T2, that's what they called it, back in the massive marketing campaign in the summer of '91 that led to the film reigning for quite a few years as the highest-grossing R-rated film in the the world) are all mixed up, like. I love it; but I know that it isn't remotely as close to perfect as the first Terminator, nor Aliens. Yet I love it nonetheless, and as I have learned more and more about how movies are put together and ought to be judged, I have grown to love it for those reasons as well.

First things first: a sequel to The Terminator was an idea that really had no business being put together, but I suppose that after The Abyss proved that the wonderboy Cameron had a weakness after all, he was encouraged to return to his greatest triumph to try again to make something big and spectacular, pushing the envelope of what could be achieved with contemporary filmmaking techniques and giving the audience a rip-roaring good time in the process, rather than the somewhat too-slow and pseudo-cerebral fantasy that ended up just not quite working perfectly in his last movie. But the director remained as he would always remain a bit over-concerned with things other than just providing a lot of explosions and fancy-ass toys; if he was going to put together a second Terminator, it had to tell a good story that built off of the original in an intelligent and likely way, paying tribute to the first film without copying it. It is perhaps the most incredible of T2's many achievements that it actually manages to hit all of those notes; in all the annals of blockbuster sequeldom, rare indeed is the sequel whose plot is as careful and deliberate as that of Terminator 2.

It is eleven years after the events of The Terminator, in the unfathomably distant future of 1995. Here we find that Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, returning) has been locked in an asylum, due to her crazy ramblings about killer cyborgs and a nuclear war in the late 1990s; she has thus been separated from her son John (Edward Furlong), though not until after he picked up quite a few ideas and survivalist tricks from the nutty old lady.

In her monologue that opens the film, Sarah mentions a teeny bit of retconning to the situation in the first movie: it seems that Skynet, the evil sentient computer of the future apparently sent a second Terminator robot into the past to kill John, the future savior of humanity (and this is where I will admit that in both films, the fact that the kid's name is John Connor has always irritated me a bit), and once again, the human resistance has sent their own soldier to save him; though how exactly this works given that Kyle Reese mentioned in the first movie that the time machine was destroyed is not, to my recollection, quite explained.

So, we get to see those two time-travelers pretty much right away: the first is a familiar naked hulk with an Austrian accent; the Terminator is back, once again in the imposing form of Arnold Schwarzenegger. His opposite number is a reedy little naked guy once again, played by Robert Patrick; that this guy is not quite as on the level as Reese was is demonstrated by his willingness to apparently murder a cop to steal his clothing, while the Terminator merely threatens a biker into stripping.

Oh, why be coy? As much as it disappoints me that I'll never be able to see the first Terminator without knowing that Reese is the good guy and the Terminator is the villain, it is even worse that, thanks to the omnipresent marketing machine which ultimately gave up the secret, nobody ever got to see T2 without knowing that in this one, Schwarzenegger's Terminator, the T-800, is the hero, and Patrick, the T-1000 is the true villain. Once again, ubiquitous foreknowledge works to the film's detriment, for the opening act is enough of a corker as it is; it would be pretty damned spectacular if we had absolutely no idea what was going on, and assumed that Patrick, was stalking John to save him from Schwarzenegger, only to have what would theoretically have been one hell of a wow moment when the T-800 steps in front of a bullet, saving John's life, and blasts a zinc-colored hole in the T-1000. Alack, to never know that experience.

But I am really just sort of nitpicking for the sake of it: no matter how many times one sees T2, it never stops working, even if it stops being a surprise. As he did in the first Terminator film, Cameron starts off running and barely ever lets off for more than a scene or two. Of course, in the case of the first film, I noted that he never lets off at all, and here we start to drift into the very awkward and unenjoyable part of the review, where I have to break down and confess: T2 has problems. They are not crippling problems. They are not even terribly severe problems, for the most part. But it's just not as good a film as The Terminator, despite soundly surpassing it in a few areas.

The first of these problems I've indicated: the film lacks its predecessors unholy urgency, stopping every now and then for a nice long draught of exposition - of which there is considerably more than there was in the first movie, largely because Cameron and his co-writer, William Wisher, take great pains to show us all the little ways in which this film doesn't violate the integrity of the first movie whatsoever. In the original film, all the exposition was dumped in two scenes which were woven into the plot so effectively that you hardly notice that the action stops for upwards of five minutes; here, in a film that already runs nearly a half-hour longer than the first, there are quite a few noticeably saggy moments.

Those moments which are not forced do to storytelling concerns are largely due to character moments; and this is where I find T2 really starts to show its seams, particularly in the 16-minute-longer special edition cut prepared for home video (and still not marked a "Director's Cut"), bringing us up to a full 45 minutes longer than The Terminator. The greatest single flaw with T2 is a simple thing to identify: John Connor, and Edward Furlong's godawful performance as same. And in one of the few outright mistakes of his whole career, Cameron decided that this character was just absolutely the swellest thing he had in is movie, or something: because we get a whole lot of scenes between John and the T-800 that don't really advance the plot at all, instead preferring to develop character, particularly the notion that poor, fatherless John (whose daddy died the same day that the boy was conceived, lest we forget) has latched onto the re-programmed Terminator - re-programmed by John in the future, no less - as a surrogate father figure (there are even more of these moments in the extended cut).

That's not an inherently terrible idea, but it needs a much more sympathetic character than this film's John Connor to make it work. I am not exaggerating when I say that there isn't a single moment of the film when I ever particularly care for him, and at least one point ("Did you call moi a dipshit?") when I wish I could transform my own arm into a steel blade and drive it into the television, killing him myself. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary. But to my tastes, young John is the first genuinely bad character in any James Cameron film, and that man's career is not exactly checked with ensembles full of dynamic figures.

Fortunately, he makes up for arguably the worst character in his canon with arguably his best character: Sarah Connor 2.0, the apotheosis of Cameron's great female protagonists whose bad-assery is a manifestation of their motherly instincts. Actually, he only has three such characters, and two of them are both Sarah Connor; but her treatment in this film is wildly different than it is in the first, and all to the benefit of the sequel. Her soft, early-20s features have been replaced by wiry muscle; she is transformed herself into something as driven as either Terminator. In what I can only praise as the very best kind of bravery, neither Cameron nor Hamilton demand that we like Sarah Connor; nor do we really understand her (despite another ill-advised extended edition scene, featuring a cameo from Michael Biehn as Reese in Sarah's dreams). She is the most terrifying figure in the movie, frankly, and the core of the movie's propulsive forward action. Sure, the two actual killer robots might be the prime movers, but Sarah is the film's nervous, apocalyptic energy; Hamilton plays the role to utter perfection, and Cameron and cinematographer Adam Greenberg privilege the character by using her as the anchor for most of the shots she appears in: no matter who else is onscreen, or what they're doing, our eye always settles on Sarah Connor.

Looking back over what I've written, I'm frankly shocked at how much it seems that I can't get into the movie: far from it. Growing up, this was to me the defining American action movie, and I haven't quite shaken that even as, now that I'm an adult, I can quickly recognise The Terminator or Die Hard, just to name two, as absolutely superior. Still, I'm a sucker: for the almost-endless moving, moving, moving, the size and scale of the explosions and setpieces, for the outstanding visual effects that required the small ILM computer imagery department to quadruple its staff just to make the movie, and for the countless little grace notes that prove James Cameron's real and genuine passion for the movies he makes - the short moment where the T-1000 melts through the bars in the asylum, only to find that the gun its holding is stuck, that is my very favorite little detail in any of Cameron's movies.

This was the last of the director's great movies (and isn't it weird that his three best films all have tough women in the lead roles?), but you wouldn't know it from most of the evidence onscreen: Cameron's superb ability to frame action setpieces remained at this point the best in Hollywood, and when it is at its finest - the two big semi-truck scenes, the Cyberdyne break-in, the T-1000's death scene - it is then that T2 reveals itself as a kind of visual poem of action and destruction. Damn that John Connor! and damn the director's increasing sentimentality that would prove an even bigger problem in his later movies, that T2 should be unjustly crippled from being as great as it might be.

Reviews in this series
The Terminator (Cameron, 1984)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Mostow, 2003)
Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009)
Terminator Genisys (Taylor, 2015)
Terminator: Dark Fate (Miller, 2019)