There is a standing rule in movies that you do not unnecessarily date your film. Putting a specific future date on a story, without some historical pretext for doing so, makes it into an antique before its time. Strange Days takes place on the last few days of the year 1999 (I won't say "the last few days of the 20th century", for obvious reasons), when violence and anarchy are seething in the streets of Los Angeles, but if anything, its pre-millennial tension feels even less dated in these times of post-millennial, post 9/11 tension. It's one of the many signs this movie was too far ahead of its time for its own good.
Many groundbreaking films don't get the audience they deserve the first time out. Critics largely trashed Strange Days for its confrontational graphic violence; audiences were either scared or confused by its fulminating story of racism and underbelly paranoia. At least one web reviewer wrote a scathing dissection of it from a Bad Movies We Love point of view. I admired it instantly when I first saw it in a packed theater on opening night, and I've become even more of an evangelist for the film since. It is far from perfect — what movie is? — but the good parts of it have remained so prescient, it's no wonder it outlasted its moment in time.
Strange Days leverages a premise that has been pressed into the service of a number of other science-fiction stories, and at least one other movie, Brainstorm: the sensory recorder, where one's experiences can be taped and played back. Brainstorm took a much more aseptic and conventional view of the idea, and centered part of its plot around a tape of someone's death experiences — if you watch the tape yourself, do you also die? But the death of star Natalie Wood and some post-production tampering by MGM wrecked the movie: despite the first forty minutes being brilliant, the rest is "a muddled Nasty Government yarn" (cf. Cinefantastique). Strange Days has both the "death movie" and "Nasty Government" ideas as well, but in the service of a much more daring and cynical story.
The film doesn't waste any time throwing us headlong into both its premise and its world. The very first thing we see is "playback" of a bunch of thugs going on a smash-and-grab spree through a Vietnamese restaurant. They lock everyone in the freezer, divide the cash, and then scream in pain when they hear the cops pulling up outside. Up the stairs they go, to the top of the building, and over the rooftops — except the guy with the recording rig doesn't make the first jump, and plummets six stories to his death.
"God damn it, you know I don't deal in snuff!" Off comes the headset, or SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) system, and we see the scruffy/suave Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), who's been screening clips from his friend Tick (the scrawny Richard Edson, whom you may remember from Stranger Than Paradise). Nero is a hustler of clips, selling "pieces of other people's lives" on the street for a few hundred bucks a pop. This fantastic technology, we learn, was developed for the feds as a substitute for the body wire, but in a fulfillment of William Gibson's line "The street finds its own uses for things," it leaked out to the underground and is now the big high-tech drug of choice. Nero, a former vice cop, scrounges his living by dealing with the buyers and sellers of synthetic reality. Small wonder people want to duck out on the real world in this alternate 1999, since it's so vicious and miserable: tanks roll through the streets, cars burn on every intersection, "gas is three bucks a gallon, and fifth-grade kids are shooting each other at recess" (says an anonymous voice on a call-in radio show).
Nero's upset about Tick's "snuff" clip — he doesn't deal "black jack," as they're called in the trade, and most of what else Tick has for him is a snooze. "What's this, some girl having an argument with her boyfriend? It's a test pattern; I'm snoring." But Nero winds up coughing up the dough for the tape anyway, and heads out to do some more business. Predictably, most of the clips in his portfolio involve sex: we see funny scenes of him setting up two girls to do a scene as if he's directing a porno movie by remote control, and of him educating a would-be gigolo in how to use the SQUID deck: "Just be sure to keep the recorder in your jacket or near to wherever it is you're gonna 'close escrow.'"
Nero's friend Max is all too willing to see things his way, but Mace and Lenny aren't eye-to-eye often.
In another great sequence, Lenny has a first meeting with a naive new customer, telling him: "This isn't 'like TV, only better.' This is life. This is a piece of someone's life," and proceeds to prove it by playing the guy a tape of a girl taking a shower. We only see the playback from the outside, and the customer stands there gasping and fondling himself; that moment would be funny if it wasn't so fundamentally unnerving.
Lenny's business is cut short by the appearance of his ex-cop buddy Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore), off the force after taking a bullet to the head. Peltier pads out what little of a disability check he gets with his earnings as a private detective for rock impresario Philo Gant (the perennially creepy Michael Wincott), a character probably patterned after Rick Rubin in both his demeanor and his omnivorous appetites. Max, too, is a character, with a distended smile and a thoroughly jaundiced view of life: "How're we supposed to make civilization last another thousand years, Lenny? It's all been used up." Lenny doesn't share his outlook, if only because it means he won't have any more customers.
Lenny has another comrade-in-doubts, Lornette "Mace" Mason (Angela Bassett), a limousine driver with whom Lenny sometimes bums rides when she's feeling charitable. Lenny and Mace were closer before, once, but Lenny's drift into the seedy underworld of clips and playback forced a wedge between them. Lenny's most inchoate and unrequited feelings are reserved for Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis), a pouty firecracker of a singer whom he picked up years ago when she was a naive, somewhat bubbleheaded runaway. Apparently she matured a lot faster than Lenny did — or faster than he could handle — and wound up latching onto Philo, who has vague plans for recording her on his label. In the meantime, she plays for enthusiastic crowds at the Retinal Fetish, a nightclub where every imaginable vice is paraded on catwalks for leering patrons.
Bad luck falls on Lenny's head like loose roof tiles. First his car's repossessed, then he's thrown out of the Retinal Fetish not once but twice by one of Philo's thugs. The movie finds snappy ways to personalize all of these things, though: when the repo man hitches his tow truck to Lenny's front bumper, he frantically tries to offer the guy the (fake) Rolex off his wrist while he goes to get a (probably bad) check cashed. When he's pitched out of the nightclub, it's by a former football player whom Tick tipped him off about, and he's able to use the other guy's underdog status as a bid for sympathy. Lenny may be a loser, but he's a smart and unpredictable one, and half of the reason we stick around is to see what he does next.
Then the film's plot begins to jell. The night before, one of Philo's star acts, rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer, who drove the sports car in Speed), was shot dead in his car, possibly by rival gang members. In a parallel development, two angry L.A.P.D. cops chase down a former prostitute friend of Faith's, Iris (Brigitte Bako; the voice of Pai in 3x3 Eyes). She fearfully slips Lenny a clip which appears to have some horrific importance, but before he can get to it, someone else gives Lenny another clip — "Fan mail from some flounder?" Lenny quips — which is a first-person version of Iris's murder.
Lenny is appalled, realizing to what degree this is the work of a genuine sicko. Not only did the perp tape the killing, but in the tape he's seen planting a headset on Iris so she can experience her own murder through the killer's eyes. Mace is twice as disgusted, since Lenny's the one always talking about the need to take a walk down to the "dark end of the street" every so often. "Anything to do with the wire, sooner or later it washes up on your beach." But she also offers him solace and comfort, and we get the impression their distances from each other are more a matter of bad habits than unbridgeable gulfs.
Convinced that Philo — himself a infamous SQUID-head, and one of Lenny's former customers — is behind the whole mess, Lenny visits him and tries to drag Faith away. She's having none of it, unfortunately, and she gets in one of the movie's best lines: "There's still one way playback is better than the movies: the credits roll, the lights come up, and you know it's over." Then the two paranoid cops from before (Vincent D'Onofrio and William Fichtner) show up and make Lenny's life really miserable.
All of this is set against the accelerating paranoia of the last day of 1999, when "the most sold-out party in history" is about to take place in Los Angeles's streets. Again, this should have put a long-expired sell-by date on the film, but Strange Days doesn't depend on that ticking-clock gimmick as the sole generator of tension. It banks instead on characters with strong roots in film nor, where flawed people do bad things for good reasons. Nero's streetwise, but not quite streetwise enough to always outthink his enemies, and so he's more often than not being beaten to a pulp (and having Mace rescue him).
Nero's attraction to Faith is harder to explain, but to that end we're provided with a bit of backstory in the form of a nostalgia clip — a July 4th weekend where Faith and Lenny went rollerskating and made love. If there is anything between them, the movie seems to be saying, it is predicated entirely on things past; neither of them are those people now. Mace also works hard to jar Lenny out of his blind attachment to something that doesn't exist anymore. "This is real time," she shouts at him in one scene, "right here, right now," and smashes a box of his favorite clips.
The film is technically outstanding. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, worked from a story by James Cameron (with some assistance from former Time film critic Jay Cocks); he was originally going to direct, but opted instead to take the producer's chair. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti (who lensed another interesting noir update, Johnny Handsome) painted the screen in mostly swaths of nighttime darkness, cut by sharp blues and greens and oranges as the characters trade blows and insults in nightclubs, lofts, bars, and subways. Cameron's own effects company, Digital Domain, supplied some key special effects, including a jaw-dropping moment where we look down on what appears to be most of downtown Los Angeles and see the streets jammed with people for blocks in every direction. The most incredible feat of the movie is of course the tour-de-force opening sequence, stitched together from several dozen shorter takes into what appears to be one long take, but you'll only be musing about that after it's over, not while it's unspooling.
What I admire most about the movie is how fearless it is to take an idea and really run with it. So many movies introduce the beginning of a really new idea and then fumble the execution, as Brainstorm did, or get bogged down in silly technical details. Strange Days is about the world that these characters inhabit, which has been changed in many ways by the presence of playback: it's made some people addicts and control freaks, and some of them bottom-feeders. It's no accident playback starts off as something the cops developed: the movie's insinuation is that men of vice will find vice in everything, no matter how noble the origins, and that no technology — especially not technology that creates power imbalances — ever honors its original container.
Strange Days also creates an environment of credible menace, rooted in concrete details. This L.A. is festooned not just with cops in tanks and helicopters, but with Santa Clauses being mugged and Vietnamese gangsters with AK-47s in the shadows. Multi-cultural posters adorn the graffiti-splattered walls for the "2000" celebration, while a possibly racist conspiracy foments in the background. The soundtrack also works hard to sound appropriately in-universe, from the African skinhead slam of Skunk Anansie to the hothouse techno of Deep Forest.
The movie's ending, the very last couple of minutes, are deeply flawed. There is a riot, the circumstances of which I won't describe, but as anyone who has witnessed a riot knows, you simply cannot stop it by waving your arms and yelling. (I also doubt whether, in a scene near the beginning, even a cop could punch through the window of a subway train with a bare fist.) But after seeing the movie more than a couple of times, I find the flaws, ending included, less egregious; it's as if they had to bend the story somewhere to make everything work, and it bent more easily there than almost anywhere else. It's forgivable, especially when the rest of the film is so inspired, so breathless and so confident in its ability to show us something we've really never seen before, and to force us to think about it.