Strange Days (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

December 30, 1999: the penultimate day of the penultimate year of the century (the 20th century doesn't officially end until the close of 2000). In Los Angeles, the "biggest party of all time" is already underway. Crime is flowing as freely through the streets as champagne at the high-class galas. Ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is in his element: a world where his former colleagues are too busy with serious matters, like the roadside shooting of rapper/black activist Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), to harass small-time dealers like him. What Nero sells, however, isn't traditional dope, although it's just as addictive and arguably more dangerous. He's the magic man, not the candy man, and his bag of goodies contains disks full of memories and experiences. Once plugged into the appropriate player, one disk allows the user to re-live its contents, which could be something as innocent as taking a shower, something as raunchy as participating in an orgy, or something as grotesque as committing a murder.

This is the premise of James Cameron's script for Strange Days, the technologically slick action/thriller directed by his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break). Where Total Recall underused a similar concept, Strange Days takes the subject matter and runs with it. The picture does not attempt to mix, mingle, or confuse fantasy and reality. Instead, it uses these ideas as a launching pad for a murder mystery conspiracy that involves a car chase, shoot-outs, and a fight-to-the-death climax -- all the things expected from this sort of motion picture.

One of the most fascinating elements of Strange Days is the subculture that has developed around Superconductor Quantum Interference Device (SQUID) users. Even though it's illegal to buy or own these machines, their availability has created a thriving black market for disks to run in them. There's big money involved for those who deal in memories, and for anyone willing to allow a part of their life to be recorded. Oddly, though, for all the dollars being traded, no one seems to be getting rich. Lenny has a run-down apartment and always wears the same ratty wardrobe. His street contact is in even worse shape. Only his friend Mason (Angela Bassett), who won't use a SQUID, appears to have a financial foundation, and she's far from wealthy.

Only five years into the future, LA is a poverty-stricken city seething with racial tension that Strange Days brings bubbling to the surface. This film can be seen as a two-pronged cautionary tale: what happens when drugs become the only escape from a grim reality, and what could occur if attempts aren't made to heal the racial fissure. A Rodney King-inspired scene with LA cops beating an unarmed black woman, and the riot that follows, underscores the volatility of the situation in 1999 -- and it's not that different from recent history. Strange Days may be a dark fantasy, but its subtext never strays far from a reality we can all understand.

If the premise is the most fascinating element of the film, and what draws the viewer in, Bigelow's tight pacing keeps the audience involved. The most recent two-and-one-half-hour film to move this quickly was Pulp Fiction. Since there's no let up, viewing Strange Days becomes an exhausting undertaking, and the unrelenting tone doesn't allow a moment's relief. Combined with the sensory overload created by a throbbing soundtrack and stylish cinematography, this makes for an intense movie-going experience.

Perhaps the greatest assets of Strange Days are its lead performers. Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List, Quiz Show) continues to impress with his range and ability. After roles as a vicious Nazi and erudite quiz show contestant, he returns to the screen as a seedy techno-drug dealer "calmly backstroking along in the big toilet bowl of life." Angela Bassett plays the latest -- and best-acted - - female action hero to emerge from Cameron's pen (following in the footsteps of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Linda Hamilton in the two Terminator flicks). The supporting cast, which includes Tom Sizemore (Devil in a Blue Dress), a slimy Michael Wincott (The Three Musketeers), and Vincent D'Onofrio (Household Saints), is solid. Even Juliette Lewis' spacy, one-dimensional performance doesn't damage the film -- Bigelow uses the actress to her best, albeit limited, ability.

While Strange Days is accomplished in choreographed action, character development, pacing, and visual effects, it displays serious flaws as a murder mystery. Not only is the killer's identity telegraphed far too early, but one of the worst cliches of the genre is reproduced here: while holding the good guy at gun point, the bad guy describes his entire plan. Even the slight twist Cameron employs isn't enough to camouflage this contrivance. Overall, however, Strange Days is a thriller first and a mystery second. It's big, explosive entertainment and, although not directed by Cameron, is very much in the vein we've come to expect from him. Strange Days may not be the best movie to hit screens during the Fall, but it's likely to be the brashest.

Strange Days (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 1995-10-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1