Friday, January 27, 2017

Strange Days (1995) review

    Distracting from the tragedies of 2016, I've decided to do a review of a movie about the death of a celebrity, police brutality, racial tension, and the use of social media to record crimes. Yes, I refer to Strange Days by Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron. It's a movie with such strangeness as Ralph Fiennes as an American drug dealer and a choice between Angela Bassett vs. Juliette Lewis being difficult.

    Oh, it's also about technology exists that can be used to record and share memories. It is one of the quintessential cyberpunk movies and is notable for taking place in the far-off future of 1999. Note: The movie was filmed in 1995 so this was always meant to be something of a joke timeline wise. It was inspired by the Rodney King Riots, though, and it's vision of Los Angeles isn't too far off. Well, except for the inexplicable 70s fashion everyone is wearing.

The first rule of being a drug dealer: Don't sample your own product.
    The premise is Los Angeles has become a racially divided crime ridden hellhole where the police act like an occupying force - you know, complete fiction. Yes, I know I just did that joke. It bears repeating. Lenny Nero (Fiennes) is a ex-cop turned drug dealer who has the unique product of SQUIDs. Squids are literal recorded memories that allow you to experience another person's life for about thirty minutes at a time.

    It's a bit like Being John Malkovich, except you're more likely to do sex with two women or a heist.  I'll be honest, I'd do it along with every other video gamer on the planet. Interestingly, similar technology appeared in both Neuromancer as well as Cyberpunk 2020. Indeed, it will be the focus of the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 game.

Faith is a mid-list rocker who may never be any higher--so good casting.
    Lenny Nero is running a not-quite-thriving business and addicted to his own product. He spends much of his time reliving his memories of his ex-girlfriend Faith (Lewis). Honestly, I think he could probably make millions off this stuff and just needs a more upscale clientele. Certainly, he doesn't seem as rich as having such technology should make him--stolen from the FBI or not. The fact Lenny is a disgusting low life may have something to do with it. Indeed, Lenny has only a few friends with his primary one being Mace (Bassett) who runs an armored limousine service. Lenny's other friend, and I use the term loosely, is sleazy P.I. Max (Tom Sizemore) who is even more of a waste than Lenny.

    Lenny's life takes a change for the worst when a prostitute friend of his is murdered and he ends up with mental footage of the act. It gets worse as he also finds himself involved in a conspiracy to cover up the death of a popular Black rapper. This may, accent on may, be related to a threat to Faith's life but could well just be the desperation of a man who wants to get back with his ex. The ambiguity of whether or not there is a conspiracy is one of the elements which makes the movie work as it's clear Lenny is not entirely right in the head so he may be seeing things which aren't there. My theory is either SQUIDs have an affect on the brain similar to drugs or he's not rich because he's using hardcore drugs in addition to his own product.

One of these cops eventually becomes Daredevil's Kingpin.
    Strange Days is one of the seminal cyberpunk films even though the only science-fiction element is a relatively modest (albeit well-explored) piece of technology. Really, most of the story could be done just with a camera phone. Nevertheless, I do consider it a perfect example of cyberpunk as it manages a strong social conscience while keeping its protagonists cynical and on the wrong side of the law. High tech and low-life has always been the heart of the genre, so the near-civil war level of unrest of Los Angeles combined with the pseudo-drug culture and rock themes makes it a powerful story.

    The casting is somewhat questionable in this movie as I mentioned. Juliette Lewis is extremely toned and loves to show that quality off in this film's myriad nude scenes but it's difficult to buy her as Lenny's ephemeral Venus. Indeed, aside from his idealized memories, the character of Faith comes off as shrill and obnoxious. Ralph Fiennes does an excellent job of selling himself as a drug dealer who hasn't showered in a few days but still remains inexplicably charming.

Faith's new boyfriend is a bad person. You may be surprised to discover this.
    However, I can't help but think the movie might have done better casting someone who isn't so obviously not from Los Angeles. No complaints about Bassett's performance, though. Mace is a character you wouldn't expect from her but she manages to completely sell. Hell, I'd love to have seen a movie based on her since she's much more interesting than Lenny. Tom Sizemore's performance as Max is delightfully off-kilter and even better when you finally put the pieces together as to why he's acting so strange.

    I think what I like about the movie most is it's thoroughly unromantic in an idealized way. The movie embraces the idea conspiracies are bullshit, your one true love very possibly wasn't, you should move on when dumped, and fantastic new technology will probably be used to either kill people or have sex. The movie starts with the idea of a hyper-competent serial killer ala Hannibal and a group which may be untouchable that has influence over the city.

It's a crime this movie didn't have Prince's "Party like it's 1999."
     There's some really great scenes in the film from the initial 1st person tracking shot of a robbery gone wrong, to the execution of rapper Jeriko One, to the escape from a sinking limousine, to the massive 1999 New Year's Eve party where everyone has inexplicably failed to realize the new millennium starts in 2001. I can't blame the writers for that one, though, since that happened in real life. I also actually buy the inexplicable romances and attractions because, well, real life is like that sometimes.

    By the end, the killer is revealed as a degenerate pathetic waste of flesh while the "group" is a bunch of idiots digging their own grave. Did our heroes make the world a better place by their actions? Probably not. The world will go on with none of the major issues behind the unrest around them resolved but they're alive and their enemies are (mostly) dead--which is enough, perhaps.


1 comment:

  1. Yeah, the myth of the hyper competent serial killer has become pretty cliche. When you look at real life serial killers they really aren't. Most of them get by from 1) not being related to the victim in any way and 2) sheer dumb luck.