Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis and Tom Sizemore.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:
Well, there are a variety of incredibly valid reasons as to why I've never watched this. I suppose the key reason is that I, um, didn't know it existed until about a year ago. I'm sorry. Will it ease your internet rage if I tell you that Near Dark is just about my favorite horror movie ever?
What a schizophrenic viewing experience this movie is! It's rare to see a movie at war with itself in such a uniquely disastrous way. Stylistically and conceptually, Strange Days is all over the map, never quite sure what it wants to be. Is it an attempt at a hard science fiction story? Is it a bloody, mayhem filled action romp? Is it trying to be prophetic with its look at "the near future" or was everyone involved just looking for an excuse to try to outdo Blade Runner?
Ralph Fiennes, proving that a great actor does make a great action hero, stars as our anti-hero, a dealer of illegal virtual reality tapes. When he gets on the angry end of a corrupt official, played by Tom Sizemore, he finds himself eluding fellow criminals as well as the cops through the streets of a detailed but laughable futuristic Los Angeles. And then the world ends. Or something. It's pretty confusing.
Kathryn Bigelow's direction is strong, but her rough-and-tumble action style is at odds with James Cameron's script, which tries too hard to tap into the VR zeitgeist of the mid-1990s. The script's technological self-importance is laughable in the age of the iPod, but the film's bizarre style and the well-staged action makes Strange Days worth a watch for the Bigelow completist.
I liked Strange Days. I liked it enough to say, right here from the top, that it's worth watching if you like your science fiction and your action and your Ralph Fiennes and especially your Angela Bassett. But if you'll allow me to steal my own quote: What a schizophrenic viewing experience this movie is!
Strange Days reeks of the 1990s. It may be a science fiction film taking place in the near future (and by near future, I mean the year 1999), but it's a movie confined to its decade. Grunge music, Rodney King Y2K fever...for all of bombast and style Kathryn Bigelow brings to the table, and she brings a great deal of it, the whole experience feels oddly quaint. A little trip down the nasty side of memory lane for those who remember what it was like to be alive in the late 1990s.
That sounds too negative. I don't want to beat up Strange Days, I just want to shake its shoulders and laugh in its face for a few minutes before I take it out for a beer. Strange Days is great fun, just wildly uneven fun that needs to be viewed as a child of its decade to fully appreciate.
Before I go any further, I need to make it clear about one aspect of this column. Once I've selected a film, I don't read anything about it. Nothing. I don't go to IMDB. I don't read the Netflix synopsis. I just pop the DVD in the player. It tells you something about Tom Sizemore that I immediately assumed he was a powerful villain when he is actually the laid-back buddy of our hero, the exceptionally well-named Lenny Nero, played by Ralph Fiennes. I was correct when I assumed the plot follows Lenny as he is pursued throughout Los Angeles over an illegal virtual reality tape on December 31 of 1999, but I wasn't expecting city-wide racial crises, first-person action sequences, a wacky music producer, two rogue cops, fake Rolex watches and maybe a kitchen sink. Or two.
There is a lot going on during the course of the two and a half hour runtime and a lot of it doesn't quite gel in the end, with the final conclusion feeling like a letdown after one hundred and twenty minutes of extensive build-up. The script, by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, is complicated enough to stay interesting, but it feels like it's one more draft away from being something really special. This is a massive cast of engaging characters, unique action and a few concepts that I don't think I've ever seen before, so it's not like they didn't try. It may be a classic case of biting off more than you can chew.
Okay, so Strange Days is messy, it's too long and it takes a good hour before the story really kicks in. The fixation on VR technology for entertainment feels silly in an age where video games allow simulated murder and the internet allows instant access to the pornography of your choice. The Los Angeles of the "near future" 1999 just feels silly, with riots literally on every street corner. Were they trying to parody the idea of Los Angeles? If they were, it feels at odds with the film's otherwise very serious tone. And the fashions. Oh my, the fashions.
If you can get past all of this, there is a solid action movie here. Not surprisingly, fifteen-years-before-becoming-Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow delivers the goods and keeps this unwieldy movie flying forward instead of getting bogged down in useless details. I had few qualms while watching because Bigelow didn't give me time to dwell on the details, instead forcing me to keep up with the rapidly moving story. The whole experience of watching Strange Days is akin to chasing a runaway truck down a crowded street, only to find that the truck was empty save for a Sony Walkman and a Nintendo VR Boy. But man, whatta' chase!
What makes this chase work is our two leads, Fiennes' Lenny and Angela Bassett's Mace. Lenny is far from the typical action hero. In fact, he's not an action hero at all. In most action films, when we hear a character is a former cop, we immediately take that to mean that he's capable of flying through the air with two pistols, pumping random baddies full of lead. It's refreshing that Lenny being a former cop means he knows how to outwit and out-think and out-talk his opposition rather than out-shoot them. When Lenny is forced to fight, it's not graceful, well-choreographed Kung Fu, but a man desperately doing everything he can to stay alive. Ralph Fiennes is instantly relatable and likable and it's a bittersweet reminder that this great actor can play roles other than "the epitome of evil."
We get our action hero fix with Bassett, who kicks so many butts and takes so many names throughout the film that she needs to buy new shoes and pick up a new address book (Rimshot!). It's rare to find a black action hero and rarer still to find a female black action hero, so it's refreshing to say the least. Her relationship with Fiennes feels real and there's actually chemistry between the two off them, enough that I'd gladly pay to see the further adventures of Lenny and Mace (file that under the pipe dream file along with a Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang 2). Bigelow is well-known for being able to direct "guy films," so I can only imagine her having a blast directing a strong woman in a "guy film." Lenny gets to do all of the running and talking, Mace gets to take part in Bigelow's trademarked as*kicking. This also the point where I mention that she fits quite nicely into the James Cameron Gallery of Women Who Can Kill You With Their Hands.
Above, I spent a couple hundred words poking Strange Days in the ribs for its obsession with a technology people stopped caring about the moment the iPod and the PlayStation 2 rolled around. Does anyone seriously desire virtual reality in 2010? Snark aside, the VR sequences are among the best things Bigelow has ever directed. Using lengthy steadicam shots (that look like they caused their fair share of headaches to shoot) representing recorded memories from a first person perspective, Bigelow allows us to take part in a shoot-out, to run for our lives, to commit a murder, go roller skating with the love of our life and to even be a lesbian. It's a surreal, disorienting and intoxicating experience. A sequence where a murderer and rapist forces his victim to see the act through his eyes may very well be one of the most terrifying things I've ever seen. Anyone who has attempted a first person sequence in a movie lives in the shadow of Bigelow's work here. I'm not going to stop making fun of the technology in this movie, but the execution is flawless and the main reason to see it.
It's a testament to the quality aspects of Strange Days that I feel like I could spend all day talking about the movie despite not being entirely in love with it. Sure, it's dated and it's purely a product of its time, but it's a slick, brilliantly directed product of its time. It's a strange film to watch a decade removed from the year 2000. I was a little too young in 1999 to make a profound point here, but for all of its messiness, Strange Days truly encapsulates the fears and desires of a decade. More importantly, it tries to encapsulate how we need to dispel these fears and escape these desires. I don't think I'm spoiling anything when I say that, like in reality, Y2K doesn't cause the end of the world. However, it suggests a second chance for our characters, a chance to leave behind their baggage and begin anew. More broadly, it suggests a second chance for the human race. A chance for a world plagued with violence and corruption to move on, to embrace diversity, to find peace.
In that way, Strange Days is more science fiction than ever.
(What should I view next? Vote in the comments below! I'll also listen to persuasive arguments if your film of choice isn't winning the popular vote. Or suggest something else entirely. I'm giving YOU the chance to control the direction of this column.)
-Logan's Run-2010: The Year We Make Contact