What is it about Los Angeles that makes filmmakers think the world is going to end here first? Certainly the confluence of fire, earthquake and riot has not helped. Or is just getting stuck on the freeway on the way to the Valley enough to trigger apocalyptic thoughts?
"Strange Days," the latest epic of dystopia to come out of Hollywood, is a direct if feeble descendant of "Blade Runner," that venerable prophet of urban decay. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a script by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, "Days" is loaded with effective visual razzmatazz, but what the eyes giveth, the ears taketh away.
For whether it's the plot, the dialogue, the character development or the acting itself, anything that stands apart from camera style is a thudding disappointment. "Strange Days" knows what it's about when it comes to creating a nightmare city of the near-future, but what is more frightening still is what's going on within its boundaries.
Set on the last two days of 1999, just before the start of the second millennium (known on the street as "2K"), "Strange Days" displays a provocatively sleazy, thoroughly corrupt City of the Angels. Production designer Lilly Kilvert (Oscar-nominated for the very different "Legends of the Fall") and her team persuasively create an ambience of free-floating anarchy where smoky riots are a year-round attraction and Santas have to run for their lives on Hollywood Boulevard.
Only one thing is completely different, and that is the availability, though only in bootleg form, of a new technology called SQUID, an acronym for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device. These wiry pieces of apparatus record memories and, more intriguingly, allow other people to experience them exactly as they happened. In this voyeur's paradise, "a piece of someone's life, straight from the cerebral cortex," is available to those willing to pay for it.
Before explaining SQUID technology, "Strange Days," in a bravura sequence, allows us to experience it. Using lightweight and occasionally head-mounted steadicams plus quick panning and expert cutting, director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti and editor Howard Smith have come up with an extremely edgy point of view sequence that truly creates the feeling that the camera is inside another person's head.
But once "Strange Days" slows up enough to introduce its characters, all is lost. Protagonist Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), an ex-cop and scuzzy dealer in these bootlegged memory discs, known as "clips," is so whiny he might as well be called Lenny Zero. The film, however, insists on presenting him as the last of the sensitive romantics, pining away for his lost girlfriend, an aspiring singer named Faith (Juliette Lewis).
Faith isn't really lost, she's simply taken up with Philo Gant (Michael Wincott), the nasty manager of hot rap singer Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). Only two people unconvincingly stick by Lenny in his misery: fellow ex-cop Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) and a tough limo driver and security expert named Lornette (Mace) Mason (Angela Bassett).
None of these characters is convincing and their dialogue is so tepid it's not even worth mocking. The same goes for the confusing plot, which involves the murder of Jeriko One and a prostitute named Iris (Brigitte Bako) who knows too much, though not enough to stay away from Lenny.
Through it all, "Strange Days" manages to be consistently loud, violent and sleazy, which is less of an accomplishment than it may sound. This tendency culminates in a particularly sadistic rape sequence, in which the victim, in a nod to Michael Powell's superior "Peeping Tom," is made to experience the rapist experiencing her fear. Swell stuff all around.
"Strange Days" does have a superior cast, but only Bassett manages to survive the numskull script, and that just barely. An underdressed Lewis is making a unfortunate habit of these tart-from-hell roles, and as for Ralph Fiennes, if this were his debut picture you would swear his future was all used up.
Though the creators of "Strange Days" may well be interested in its dramatic and thematic elements, they do not have the same touch for these moments as they do for camera pyrotechnics. No matter how much thought may have gone into "Strange Days," terribly little has come out the other end.
* MPAA rating: R, for intense, disturbing violence, sexuality and pervasive strong language. Times guidelines: an extremely disturbing rape scene.
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Ralph Fiennes: Lenny Nero
Angela Bassett: Lornette (Mace) Mason
Juliette Lewis: Faith Justin
Tom Sizemore: Max Peltier
Michael Wincott: Philo Gant
Vincent D'Onofrio: Burton Steckler
Glenn Plummer: Jeriko One
A Lightstorm Entertainment production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Kathryn Bigelow. Producers James Cameron, Steve-Charles Jaffe. Executive producers Rae Sanchini, Lawrence Kasanoff. Screenplay James Cameron and Jay Cocks, story by James Cameron. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. Editor Howard Smith. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music Graeme Revell. Production design Lilly Kilvert. Art director John Warnke. Set decorator Kara Lindstrom. Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.