Saturday, May 21, 2011

Random Movie Report #90: Strange Days

DVD cover and Amazon link
Strange Days is a film both of its time and relevant to today; it’s aged in a way that recalls the good things about the era in which it was made. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a script by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, the film is a cyberpunk thriller set a mere 4 years in the future and a surprisingly strong comment on the times. Perhaps inevitably because of Cameron’s involvement and the fact that a lot of money was spent (it was a flop at the time, but has since become a cult item), it retreats from some of its more daring elements and embraces a conventionality that prevents it from being as good as it could be, but the overall ride is still a memorable one.

It’s 1999, and Los Angeles is coming apart at the seams. Rapper and social activist Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) has just been killed in an apparent act of gang violence, and a perpetual riot is running in the streets in the buildup to New Year’s Eve and the turn of the millennium. (Well, not really the turn of the millennium but as close to it as makes no ends.) Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop and dealer in “clips”, recordings of people’s experiences drawn directly from their spinal column and able to be re-experienced by anyone with money and a player. People can live out robberies, daredevil tricks, vacations, sex fantasies with themselves in any role; Nero draws the line at “blackjack” or snuff clips, but others aren’t so scrupulous.

Between dodging the law, dodging creditors, and trying to win back his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), Nero is sent a clip of an anonymous assassin brutally murdering one of his contacts, a prostitute named Iris (Brigette Bako) who was earlier being chased by the police. Nero is being framed for the killing, so he teams up with an old friend, bodyguard/chauffeur Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), as well as his ex-partner on the police force (Tom Sizemore) to try and solve the case himself. In the process the two uncover a conspiracy and a story that could provide the final catalyst to plunge the city into anarchy, just in time for 2000.

Key to all of this is the casting of Ralph Fiennes, and how he and Bigelow interpret the character. Unkempt, unshaven, and just a little unhinged, Nero is an authentic fringe dweller, a man addicted to his own past and living life moment to moment in the present. He more than anyone gives the film its character, and Fiennes keeps up a junkie intensity throughout. Bassett is a particularly good counterpoint, and there's a nice if underdeveloped romantic tension between the two that contrasts well with his obsession with Faith.

The film’s storyline has a fairly gradual buildup- we’re well into the picture before Lenny finds out that anything is wrong at all. On the downside this makes for slowish going in the early segments, though to some extent the world the movie presents is interesting enough to keep us occupied. The upside is that as soon as Lenny discovers something’s wrong, he’s in so far deep that it’s almost too late. He’s being chased by sinister cops (Vincent D’ Onofrio and William Fichtner), has to find a clip that Iris recorded that she left in his car which just got towed, and has to deal with Faith’s sleazy lover/promoter (Michael Wincott) who is also involved somehow- once the plot swings into gear it’s pretty intense, intricate stuff.

The film’s action sequences benefit a lot from Bigelow’s sheer technical skill, and from the slick and vibrant style of 90s action movies, before desaturation and handheld cameras threw us all in the direction of gritty realism. The “clip” sequences are particularly engaging, most notably the very first, what seems like a long unbroken shot of a restaurant robbery from the POV of an unfortunate accomplice. The action is almost too intense at times, and the film has a twisted and relentless atmosphere that you don't expect from something James Cameron helped bring about.

That said, this was also a substantial production with a good bit of money spent, and perhaps because of this it stops short of being as brutal or audacious as it could be. There are themes of racial tension, police oppression, and general apocalypse and social upheaval brewing, but the end holds back. Parts of the story and dialogue are a little clunky and predictable, and you may well end up figuring out the major mystery well before it is revealed. It’s this retreat into formula that keeps the movie from being a genuine classic, and keeps it at merely very good.

For a while I’d hoped we’d stop predicting the imminent end of the world after the real arrival of the milennium failed to wipe us out, but the apocalyptic intensity of Strange Days remains relevant. We still have all sorts of tensions boiling, and in our anticipation of collapse and upheaval there’s both fear and hope that we could finally resolve things. The film captures this tension beautifully, and even if it’s not all it could be, it’s a hell of a thing for what it is.

Story by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Grade: B+

No comments: