B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
THERE ARE MOVIES and there are movies. Some movies throw you a small chunk of ideas and hope you'll swallow, other movies offer up a huge smorgasbord and let you take what you will. Into this category falls Strange Days, the kind of film that comes at you from so many angles that even when a few of the angles don't work, there's still a good chance you'll walk out of the theater satisfied.
Rather than summing up the plot, let's just look at a few of the items on the story's a la carte menu. You'll see that Strange Days has no shortage of trendy plot points, provided in heaping servings.
(1) Set during the last days of 1999, the film ends with a huge party reminiscent of a Prince song, employing so many extras that producer James Cameron had to throw an enormous downtown rave just to get them all there. Count on "the end of the 20th century" to increasingly show up as a theme in movies during the next four years--with an emphasis on street violence and the crumbling of civilization, of course. (At one point, we get a glimpse of two women beating up Santa Claus.)
(2) The always-hip virtual reality gets one-upped by Strange Days' alternative concept, "recorded reality." Using headgear that resembles those face-hugging, egg-depositing spidery things in Alien, characters can simply close their eyes and experience other people's experiences. The main character, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) sells the black-market disks for a living. He's also addicted to clips he made while having sex with his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis).
(3) Strange Days goes to great lengths to exploit the racial tensions in Los Angeles. At one point, Lenny's friend Mace (played by the attractively tough Angela Bassett) even receives a Rodney King-style beating from the L.A.P.D. Though the movie doesn't have much to say about the social malaise that leads to these sorts of incidents, it's fitting that the friendship of a black and white character forms the center of the film.
(4) The picture also combines elements from classic voyeuristic tales like Peeping Tom (including grisly, unnecessary rape scenes) and Psycho (complete with an extreme close-up of a dead victim's eye). These parts of Strange Days arise from a mediocre mystery plot that involves a dead rap star, his grim bodyguard, two angry cops and Lenny's best friend Max (Tom Sizemore).
So what have we got here so far? All gimmicks. Of the above listed elements, only one enjoys a satisfactory thematic resolution: the idea of recorded memories. This happens to be the most visually arresting of the film's gimmicks. Seamlessly shot using steadicams and "helmetcams," the movie's point-of-view photography delivers all of the viscera the film promises.
The rest of the gimmicks are mere window dressing, MTV-style. Midway through, when the movie's intense momentum (led by director Kathryn Bigelow's whip-edit style) finally slows down a little, the cracks between the trendy elements start to show. The first sign is an extended concert scene in which the charisma-challenged Juliette Lewis sings P.J. Harvey songs to seething, angry crowds of punks and rockers in a smoky, caged-in nightclub. Bigelow fails to capture Lenny's fascination with Faith, and turns the scene into a dull rock video.
But Strange Days remains a movie movie, and there's still a good deal of substance underneath the flash. The film's real meat is an emotional story about the desperation of Lenny's unrequited love for Faith. As a friend of mine said, he's "the nicest sleaze of the year," a slimy salesman with a heart of gold. His relationship with the principled, strong-willed Mace carries the picture (shakily, but triumphantly) despite its overlong chases through crowds and ridiculous Die Hard-esque series of climaxes.
One note: Even though the story amounts to far less than its buildup suggests, the script remains enjoyably clever and rife with double meanings. Written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, at times the script is almost too clever: It's not enough to have one character betray another; he has to literally stab him in the back. In response, the stabbed character has to "cut his tie" in both senses of the phrase. Strange Days really must be a movie movie, because not many action movies can go to this level of playfulness and get away with it.
Strange Days is playing at Century Park (620-0750) and El Dorado (745-6241) cinemas.
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