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“Terminator Salvation” a crashing disappointment

I am John Connor, hear me whisper: Christian Bale can't quite revive the role in "Terminator Salvation."

I am John Connor, hear me whisper: Christian Bale can't quite revive the role in "Terminator Salvation."

When I heard the mastermind behind such perennial classics as, ahem, “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” had signed on to direct the fourth installment in the “Terminator” series, I was apprehensive.

When I heard he’d gallantly dubbed himself “McG,” the apprehension turned into dread. 

When I finally saw “Terminator Salvation,” that dread led me to the realization of a hardy truth: The only one-named celebrities worth caring about are the ones with the talent to match their egos.

Here is where McG fails so magnificently. Oh, sure, he’s great with lightning-quick cuts and smash-and-grab action sequences. He has an enviable ability to desaturate colors and present us with a bleak landscape. He can film a fight scene from every conceivable angle. He’s so pleased with these talents, in fact, that that’s all he wants to show us. Hand-to-hand combat. Explosions. Terminators blown to McTerminator nuggets. For almost two hours. This bloody mayhem wouldn’t be so disappointing if there was the slightest whiff of an intriguing story to tell. There isn’t (the superb “T2: Judgment Day” and the just-above-average “T3” ruined that). And so McG blows everything up to distract us.

For awhile, this almost works. When the actors show up, it becomes painfully clear they have nothing to do but try their best to lend humanity to a movie that has none. As Marcus Wright, an ex-con cryogenically reborn into 2018 post-Judgment Day America, Sam Worthington does the best job. Wright, who donated his body to science, awakens to find the world leveled by a homicidal, self-aware Skynet (damn, those robots are quick studies) and its army of Terminators. Resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale doing his best “Batman voice”) can’t decide why Marcus has arrived, and his presence raises many questions. Was he sent from the future or the past? Is he hell-bent on killing Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a key player in Connor’s storyline, or delivering the boy unharmed to Connor? Or the most important question: In a gravelly voice contest, could Marcus beat J.C.? (The correct answer to question no. five is a resounding “no.”)

The answers to these questions I will not provide; that’s a fact-finding mission viewers must take themselves. “Terminator” fans should gird their loins, for this is a grim, tedious trip that will yield minimally satisfactory answers. The huge blowouts and Terminator/human fights, so impressive at first, wear down our patience, and there’s no viable human-centered story to win it back. (Note: There are plenty of movies — like “Rambo” or “Predator” — that don’t need plots to move forward. “Terminator” belongs not in this short list.)

Not surprisingly, watching the actors struggle against the tide of McG’s inadequacies is disheartening. Who didn’t have astronomical hopes for Christian Bale as John Connor? The top-notch actor seems out of his depth here. Maybe he’s distracted by the action, overwhelmed by his I-don’t-break-character-till-the-DVD-commentary-intensity. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t dissolve into Connor the way he did into scores of other characters (“El Maquinista” comes to mind). He thinks furrowing his brow and whispering in a creaky, ravaged voice equals great acting. Wrong. He’s playing Christian Bale playing John Connor, and that’s not the Bale his fans (me included) know and love. Exchanging Claire Danes for Bryce Dallas Howard doesn’t feel like trading up, either, but blame that on the script: Howard has nothing to do but look pregnant and pained. Moon Bloodgood, who has some pluck, is funneled into the love interest role and does what little she can. Yelchin’s better than this, too.

But Worthington … he deserves a second look. The American accent certainly needs work, but he has an interesting mix of bravado and vulnerability not seen since, well … pre-“Terminator” Christian Bale. There’s something about his eyes that suggests he can do more than slug bad guys and kiss hot chicks. Here’s to hoping he tries again, and soon.

As for McG, unless he gets over himself, I suspect he’ll keep trying to live his heart’s desire to become Michael Bay. Which, sadly, he won’t. Michael Bay, you see, has the good sense to use both of his names.

Grade: C

2009: Movies to Watch

Alas, the Oscars have come and gone. If you worship at the altar of Stephen Colbert, chances are you were not surprised by the outcome. I know I wasn’t. Check out my TV if you don’t believe me. You’ll find it refreshingly free of dents, dings, cracks and scratches. No foreign objects were harmed during The Really Big Show and, praise be to Will Scarlett O’Hara, I don’t have to make good on my promise to move to Canada. (Heath, I had your back … even though I generally don’t stick up for people dumb enough to mix Oxycontin and, you know, any other painkiller ever invented ever.)

But now I need a little something to lift me out of my post-Oscar funk. And what better way to forget about the past than charging headlong into the future? So here’s a treatise (more like a random sampling) of the 2009 movies I’m jumpier than a virgin at a prison rodeo to see:

  • Sunshine Cleaning (March 13) — Like anyone else nerdy enough to seek out IFC films, I fell in love with Amy Adams in Junebug, where I became convinced an actress who could make me love a character that cheerful and perky can do anything. She elevates any film she’s in, so imagine my excitement at the prospect of seeing her paired with the divine Emily Blunt, who stole every scene from Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. If any two actresses can pull off a comedy about two sisters who start a business cleaning up violent crime scenes, it’s these two. Sign me up.
  • The Last House on the Left (March 13) — There’s only one reason to see “Last House”: to compare it to the supremely unnerving, gripping and violent 1972 classic directed by Wes Craven. The original gets my vote as one of the most disturbing films ever made — the top spot goes, of course, to Chaos — so I have bargain-basement hopes for the remake, particularly because the most famous actor in the whole movie is Monica Potter, who’s made a career of playing vanilla characters in B movies. If it’s crap, I’m pulling for a Chernobyl-styled failure.
  • I Love You, Man (March 20) — Know how I know there’s some sort of higher power? Because Jason Segel finally gets the coveted spot as Paul Rudd’s fake best friend/wannabe best man in I Love You, Man. Finally, people are starting to see what so many of us saw from the beginning (for Segel, Freaks and Geeks; for Rudd, Clueless): Segal and Rudd are supremely gifted comedic actors who deserve to headline their own movies. Toss in Rashida Jones (who had a career before The Office, people) and I’m already whipping out my AmEx and logging on to Fandango.
  • Adventureland (March 27) — I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age movie, especially when it takes place in a theme park populated by the likes of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Adventureland, written by Greg Mottola (one of the brilliant minds behind Undeclared), is shaping up to be a kinder, gentler, more sophisticated Superbad. Newbie Jessie Eisenberg has a pleasingly naive William Miller quality about him, and I’m thrilled to see Freaks and Geeks grad Martin Starr (that’s Bill “You Cut Me Off Mid-Funk” Haverchuck for those not in the know) back. Add a Sno Cone and a bag of cotton candy and I’ll be in heaven.
  • The Soloist (April 24) — The fact that this movie has been shelved for more than a year worries me not. Why? Because this movie — about a journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) who befriends a homeless, brilliantly talented musician (Jamie Foxx) — has almost limitless potential. Downey Jr. is on fire these days, and Foxx continues to expand on the promise and skill he showed in Ray and Collateral. And, of course, don’t forget about Catherine Keener, a fine actress relegated to tiny bit parts. Color me excited.
  • Terminator Salvation (May 21) — I know what you’re thinking: Enough with the Terminator franchise already! I’d be inclined to agree, since I barely watched the original … and the one after that … and the one after that … and the one — well, you get the idea. But this Terminator stars none other than Batman himself, the profanity-spewing Mickey-Rourke-in-his-tender-years wannabe. Yes, post-Batman he’s become a prima donna, but Bale brings his all to every role he plays (did you see El Maquinista?). Hell, he reinvented Batman; I suspect he could do the same for John Connor.
  • Drag Me to Hell (May 29) — A horror movie starring a kinda-sorta-funny guy (Justin Long) and a talented but largely unfamous actress (Alison Lohman) about a supernatural curse. Does it get less original or more derivative than this? Hey, the plot description isn’t what sold me on this; it’s the fact that Sam Raimi — who had a fantastic career as a comic-horror cult filmmaker before the Spiderman series — is directing. He’s a superhero of a director, someone who can do horror and comedy and action. If Drag Me contains 1/16th of the pluck and wit that the Evil Dead films had, Raimi’s going down in my book as one of my favorite directors.
  • The Maiden Heist (May 29) — A museum heist involving: Marcia Gay Harden. Morgan Freeman. William H. Macy. Christopher Walken. Together. In. One. Movie. ‘Nuff said.
  • Public Enemies (July 1) — Gangster movies are a dime a dozen these days, thanks in part to the great but interminable American Gangster. This year’s high-promise gangster pic is Public Enemies, a story about the Feds’ attempt to bring down gangsters John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). With Depp, Christian Bale and Frenchie Marion Cotilliard in the mix, this is a recipe for greatness (Denzel, eat your heart out).
  • Funny People (July 31) — Call me crazy (it’s been suggested), but I can’t think of one good reason not to see a movie where Adam Sandler plays a dying comedian who takes a newbie (Seth Rogen) under his wing. Sandler has proven he can do subtle comedy and drama just fine. Even Rogen has his moments of levity (I still say his sex scene with Elizabeth Banks is one of the sweetest and best I’ve ever seen). The trick will be finding the right tone, pitched somewhere between Little Miss Sunshine and Reign Over Me. (Added bonus: There’s the potential to see Seth Rogen cry onscreen. Can he do it?)
  • Julie & Julia (Aug. 7) — Amy Adams and Meryl Streep in the same movie? What is this, Doubt with flatware, baking soda and a cast-iron skillet? Hardly. I’ve got huge, bursting hopes for this film about a kitchen novice (Adams) who decides to cook every recipe penned by Julia Child (Streep, natch) in her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Adams and Streep were stellar together in Doubt, so I suspect this pairing — here in a much lighter, more comic setting — will be equally fantastic. And I never turn up my nose at a movie where Stanley Tucci and Jane Lynch show up in the supporting cast. C’est magnifique.
  • Jennifer’s Body (Sept. 18) — Can a violent black comedy written by Diablo Cody about a possessed, homicidal cheerleader (Megan Fox, who’s easy on the eyes and has crack comic timing) who offs male classmates be anything other than stupendous? No, no, a thousand times no, I say! Cody’s got an ear for whip-smart dialogue, and director Karyn Kusama has assembled a great team of actors — including the snarkastic Adam Brody, Cynthia Stevenson and Allison Janney — sure to make this Heathers for the Bring It On set. Rah. Totally.
  • Sherlock Holmes (Dec. 25) — The truth: I’ve been a RDJr. groupie since Less Than Zero, so I’ll watch any movie he makes and probably rave about it (I make an exception for Only You). Because, you see, he keeps taking these larger-than-life characters — Ironman/Tony Stark, Charlie Chaplin, Col. Lincoln Osiris, Dito, Harry Lockhart — and making them flawed, vulnerable and funny. He seems perfectly cast in every part, much the same way Roger Ebert said Frances McDormand does, and it would seem elementary that he’ll do a smash-up job playing the ever-droll Sherlock Holmes. And the fact that Guy Ritchie’s directing, well, that’s just icing.