A very dark vision of the very near future, “Strange Days” is enough to make any Angeleno plan now to be out of town on New Year’s Eve, 1999. A technical tour de force for director Kathryn Bigelow and her team, who dazzlingly root this future noir in a technology that allows a viewer to revisit someone else’s experiences, pic is less accomplished in putting over its characters, emotions and dubious sociopolitical agenda.
Big-canvas thriller will hit assorted niche audiences in different ways: Terrifically hyped-up style will thrill many buffs, sci-fi and head-trip elements will appeal to techies, and rough action and heavy racial angle will find a following among young ethnic viewers. After the fest-circuit launch, Fox’s overall marketing challenge will be to connect with all these potential audiences without tagging the film as too highbrow. Domestic results should be good in urban areas, spottier elsewhere, while offshore prospects look more promising.
Set just four years hence on the cusp of the millennium, pic presents L.A. as an urban inferno of many people’s worst nightmares, full of random violence, burning vehicles, anarchic punks, rogue police, increasingly militant blacks and troops barely able to stem the tide of surging masses ready to torch what’s left. Whether true or not, story feels like one conceived and written in the wake of the Rodney King trial and the 1992 riots, when the possibility of such a war-zone scenario first became apparent. Ironically, finished film surfaces three years later, on the crest of O.J. and Mark Fuhrman. To some, this rendition of the near future will appear convincing and plausible; to others, its use of the race card will seem cheap and opportunistic.
Even more morally questionable is the visually extraordinary material that forms the crux of the film: subjective rapes and murders that are, in the film’s context, snuff films, real-life killings marketed for kicks for hard-up seen-it-alls. Although the yarn’s ostensible hero, black marketeer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), refuses to trade in these “clips” on ethical grounds, the film thinks nothing of dwelling on them at length. Ironically for a film directed by a woman, more than a few women will have problems with these scenes.
On the other hand, this conceptually daring and viscerally powerful piece shrewdly anticipates a likely future in which visual entertainment is increasingly rooted in pure sensation. Nero, a lowlife hustler and former cop who has connections all over town, jocularly calls himself “the Santa Claus of the subconscious,” and what he offers customers is “a piece of somebody’s life” available on a small disk and viewable via a compact headpiece that can be worn under a hat or wig.
One such episode opens the picture, and it’s a corker, a brilliant robbery “shot” from the P.O.V. of one of the criminals. For his own personal pleasure, however, Nero prefers to replay scenes of happier times, when the saucy singer Faith (Juliette Lewis) was his eager-to-please girlfriend. Among other things, “Strange Days” trades extensively in voyeurism, its retrospective sex scenes with an in-your-face Lewis repping Exhibit A.
Now, however, with just two days to go until the world steps into the next century, Faith has run off with the sadistic Philo Gant (Michael Wincott), a sinister gangster who manages radical black political leader and singer Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) until the latter is killed execution-style by unknown assailants. An incurable romantic, Nero absorbs plenty of abuse from Gant’s goons in his numerous attempts to win back Faith, whom one of her friends, a hooker named Iris (Brigitte Bako), warns is in terrible danger.
At this, the increasingly pathetic Nero hooks up with an old friend, “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), an exclusive security agent/chauffeur who runs rich clients around town in her armored limo. Although constantly annoyed with “Lenny the loser,” Mace has her own reasons for helping him out, and what little remains of the century sees Nero, often with Mace’s action-hero assistance, trying to save Iris from her fate, which he’s already viewed on the “wire”; haunting the industrial-strength nightclub where Faith performs in an attempt to rescue her; and being chased by two mad-dog cops (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) who have good reason to want a clip Nero has that would prove infinitely more inflammatory than the Rodney King video if seen by the public.
Inevitably, all the major characters wind up at the mammoth party-to-end-all-parties in downtown L.A. to usher in the new millennium. Instead of having fun, however, the main characters all have narrow personal aims: Nero to trade his hot clip for Faith’s safety, Mace to convince him otherwise for the world’s greater good, and the cops to intercept them once and for all.
This 30-minute climax represents a tremendous feat of physical direction, with continuously mind-boggling logistics; so much information, including an explanation for the murders, is imparted during the sequence that some of it might sail right past the inattentive. More problematic is the fudging of certain critical occurrences, including a bathroom encounter between Mace and the police commissioner and a near-ending that at one moment looks like the start of an all-out race riot but then imperceptibly transforms into high-spirited revelry.
Long on action sequences, script by James Cameron, who also produced and penned the original story, and Jay Cocks is elemental in posting its emotional signals. Nero is an outmoded courtly knight trying to save a woman who has proved herself unworthy of him. He’s also downright dumb and, as greasy, stubbly and dressed-down as Fiennes appears here, it’s still an ill-fitting match of role and actor, with the Welsh thesp coming off as just too elegant and refined for the principled slime bag he plays.
Bassett is nearly as pumped-up here as Linda Hamilton was in “Terminator 2,” and tougher-talking. Lewis fans will love her wanton ways here, both onstage and in the bedroom, Tom Sizemore has some juicy scenes as Nero’s cynical close friend, and Michael Wincott continues his dastardly posturing from “1492” and “The Crow.”
Technically, the film is a triumph. Probably not since the entirely first-person “Lady in the Lake” nearly 50 years ago has a Hollywood film experimented so extensively with the subjective camera, and lenser Matthew F. Leonetti and his operators are to be saluted for their outstandingly mobile widescreen work. Howard Smith’s masterly job with the complex editing, Lilly Kilvert’s densely bleak production design, Ellen Mirojnick’s eclectic costumes, Graeme Revell’s score and the many-layered soundtrack all contribute significantly to the intended sensory overload.