The Big Picture
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a prime example of the art of a good action setpiece, providing action movie insanity that keeps viewers coming back for more.
- The film stands out today because, despite its destructive sequences, it has a relatively low death count, which gives each kill more meaning.
- The parking lot scene in Terminator 2 is an impeccably executed display of precision, with practical effects and remarkable sound design, offering viewers a satisfying action movie spectacle.
The art of a good action setpiece is something we have seemingly lost in recent years, but not for lack of wanting. There is just something about action movie carnage that activates the lizard part of our brains and keeps us coming back over and over again. To really see the apex of not only the set piece but honestly the genre itself, you must go back over 30 years, to James Cameron‘s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a film full of action movie insanity. James Cameron really flew a helicopter under an overpass. It has explosions, liquid nitrogen, a man made out of liquid metal, brutal fight choreography, dirt bikes, ATM scamming, and some of the most iconic weapons ever put to film, you name it, T2 has it. But in a film full of spectacle, one scene really goes head and shoulders above the rest. The iconic minigun sequence, where Arnold Schwarzenegger mows down a parking lot of cop cars, then proceeds to blow them all up with a grenade launcher, is just spectacular. It is two minutes of absolute destruction, with no computer effects, and it is phenomenal.
‘Terminator 2’ Stands Out From Action Films Today
At a per-second rate, Terminator 2 gives us one of the most destructive sequences put to film in terms of what is accomplished in such a short time. Yet, there is a catch. Famously, no character is killed by Arnold in this sequence. In fact, he only kills one character in the entire film, the T-1000. This is something that really makes the film stand out in a modern context. Many action films today seemingly kill people any chance they get, but usually in some invisible way. Cities get leveled, giant aliens use super weapons, and the entire world, if not the universe is at stake. This approach, however, is a double-edged sword. These films exist on such a macro level that any consequence almost ceases to exist.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not a minimalist film by any means, but it has a relatively small focus that James Cameron uses to gesture at and interrogate larger themes. The world is at stake, but the majority of the action we see is between just a few characters. The film has a relatively low death count, which gives each kill more meaning. When we see the T-1000 kill John Connor’s (Edward Furlong) foster parents, that carries a lot of weight. This is doubled when a key plot point is introduced into the film. After John realizes his foster parents are dead, he orders the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) to not kill. This introduces an interesting dynamic into Terminator 2. The unstoppable killer robot in the T-1000, vs the now pacified T-800, the former killer robot from the first film who is now unable to live up to that moniker. Every kill we see is now insanely intensified. The sequence in the psych ward, where the T-1000 kills a guard after turning himself into the guard is a genuinely chilling sequence. This culminates in the raid of Cyberdyne, to destroy the Terminator technology before Skynet can be created. With both the police and the T-1000 bearing down on them, things are starting to look grim.
What Happens in the Parking Lot in ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’?
This is where we are in Terminator 2: Judgment Day when the destruction in the parking lot begins. T-800 needs to get the police off their back, but he can’t kill them, and meanwhile, the police and the T-100 are all trying to do just that. A major part of why this sequence works so well, beyond just how fun it is to see all these cars get eviscerated by a minigun, is the precision James Cameron displays in this scene. There is not a wasted frame here. It is lit impeccably, with this blueish night sky contrasting against the vibrant orange of the gunfire and explosions. The sound is just unbelievable. The guns sound so crisp, you can hear the glass and metal break as the bullets hit, and then again when they hit the ground. The sound effects of the bullets hitting the cars, the pavement, and the ground all have a distinct feel to them. The sound of the grenades being loaded into the launcher is just so satisfying, you feel like you’re playing a video game.
Executing this Terminator 2 sequence with practical effects as well makes a big difference. The violence is not mindless computer dreck, it is the action movie spectacle you were promised. And when you see that zero human casualties pop-up on screen, that’s just the cherry on top of an already wonderful sequence. It directly contrasts the cold, cerebral scenes of the T-1000, and is really the scene that starts off this incredible third act, full of setpieces that just get bigger and bigger, until we end with this deeply moving scene, where the T-800 is lowered into the molten steel. This sequence is the purest carnage we get in the film, and it is just fantastic, but it helps draw us in for where the film is going to go and moves it along thematically as well, furthering this idea of change, of a future that could be different. You can’t help but just feel cinematic joy from watching this scene, and it is a big reason why T2 remains a film that everyone has to stop and watch whenever it is on. It is just that good.
Why Is ‘Terminator 2’ a Gold Standard Action Movie?
That is really why Terminator 2: Judgment Day remains the bar that all action films are measured against. The movie doesn’t just deliver action for action’s sake, yet it is also not “elevated” — which may be the worst term in modern film discourse. James Cameron does not need to elevate the action movie genre because he believes in the value that it has. Action movies don’t need to be elevated, they just need to be done right, with care.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day proudly wears the action movie label on its sleeve. That is why you have sequences where someone destroys a seemingly endless amount of cop cars with a minigun before shooting grenades at the mangled steel to destroy them even more. That scene can exist in a “serious” film, because what is a serious film anyway? The amount of time and effort the countless people who worked on this film put into it shows, and you are left with absolute brilliance. Cinematic fun that has a real emotional core beneath the hood that drives it forward. This destruction we see has a purpose, and that is why people have kept watching and loving Terminator 2 and will until judgment day really does come. This is a shining example of what a blockbuster can be when it is allowed to be something this bold, this exciting, and this original. A phenomenal sequence, and a phenomenal movie — one of the best movies ever made, period.
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