Tastes Great, Less Filling

Angela Bassett cuts a striking figure in Strange Days. Defiant, chiseled facial features. Sculpted bod. Feral sensuality in her eyes and the confident grace of an athlete in her movement. But once you get past that fierce, riveting appearance and the novelty of a woman playing the strongest, toughest character in an action movie, there's not much else to recommend about her performance. You get the feeling she could deliver the goods if called upon to really act, but her role as Mace A a butt-kicking, limo-driving, bodyguard/guardian angel to Ralph Fiennes's strangely endearing lowlife antihero Lenny Nero -- doesn't really give her the chance. Her singular visual appeal makes you wish there was more substance to her character.

And that, in a nutshell, is the movie's problem, too; it looks great and moves well and boasts a strong woman director in a traditionally male domain (Kathryn Bigelow specializes in action films), but when it's over you'll wish there was more going on beneath the surface. From the kinetic, frenetic opening sequence depicting a violent restaurant robbery gone bad (seen from the point of view of one of the thugs), Strange Days grabs you by the throat, tosses you into the passenger seat, and hurtles off with the throttle open, the windows down, and the radio blasting. But once the initial thrills and exhilaration wear off, you realize it should have packed a map. The ride starts out fresh, dangerous, and galvanizing, but this sleek, high-octane vehicle careens down so many side roads that it runs out of gas before it gets anywhere.

So don't go to Strange Days expecting it to be A Clockwork Orange for the next millennium. Go hoping for a decent action movie with a dash of sci-fi. On that level it satisfies, working the same futuristic action vein as, say, the The Terminator. (Which should come as no surprise, as the script was co-written by James Cameron A the man who made both Terminator movies, as well as The Abyss, Aliens, and True Lies, and who used to be married to Ms. Bigelow.) Cameron's films are known for their eye-popping special effects A the liquid aliens in The Abyss, the morphing baddie in Terminator 2, the Harrier jet assault on a Brickell Avenue office building in True Lies A but, ironically, Bigelow's visual flair may actually exceed Cameron's own despite her making Strange Days on a fraction of his typical budget.

Pity the fool who accuses Bigelow of directing like a girl. Strange Days packs a visceral wallop any macho moviemaker would be proud of. It tells the story of Lenny Nero (Fiennes uncannily walking the line between sleaze and nobility), an ex-cop who brings an oily dignity to his new enterprise: peddling illegal virtual reality clips that play on a device called "the wire." Make that virtual hyper-reality; via electrodes, the wire transmits complete experiences directly from the cerebral cortex of the recorder into the brain of the wearer. A black market has quickly sprung up around the new technology, and Lenny sells adrenaline rush "experiences" with the zeal of a convert. From liquor store holdups to kinky sex, if somebody's willing to do the deed and record it on a wire, Lenny will market their chip. "Anything is possible," runs Lenny's mantra. "I can get you what you want. I'm your priest. I'm your magic man. I'm the Santa Claus of the subconscious. Just say it and you can have it."

Truth be told, Lenny's a bit of a wire hanger himself. But while he obviously enjoys the virtual voyeurism that comes with his job, he prefers to lose himself in his private stash -- a battered boxful of clips that enable him to relive intimate moments with his lost love, Faith (Juliette Lewis), who, it turns out, walked out on him at least partially because of his high-tech habit. The wire becomes a drug and a fetish all at once, a means of completely -- if temporarily -- tuning out reality and vicariously living your dreams and fantasies. And Lenny is the playback poster boy. (Get it? Lenny Nero fiddling around while his city burns.)

The technology even gives birth to a whole subculture of wire addicts. "He's acting crazy.... He's doing way too much playback," frets Faith of her new post-Lenny boyfriend. The wire becomes a metaphor for all types of "entertainment" options -- drugs, movies, television, alcohol, music, and especially video --- that facilitate escapism. For a while it appears as if Strange Days intends to bravely go where no movie has gone before -- to explore the connection between the burgeoning popularity of these methods of avoiding reality and the decaying fabric of civilization in the waning days of the Twentieth Century. "The streets are a war zone," Lenny rationalizes. "Sex can kill you. Slip on the 'trodes, you get what you want." Turn on, tune in, drop out.

But just when Strange Days starts to get really interesting, when Bigelow hooks you by providing exactly the kind of voyeuristic cheap thrills her film appears set to rail against, the director and her screenwriters (Jay Cocks and Cameron) pull back and lose their focus. They attempt to graft on political relevance by invoking the Rodney King incident with an ill-conceived subplot involving the murder of a rabble-rousing rap star named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). And as if that detour isn't bad enough, the story takes yet another side trip into bizarro serial-killer country. And then there's Lenny's pursuit of Faith, who's an aspiring rock star (Juliette Lewis gives it her writhing, waifish, white-trash, child-whore best-worst). Mace's inexplicable devotion to Lenny -- she sees something in him no one else does, natch -- serves mainly as an excuse to work Bassett into the story; her character is completely extraneous and feels like an afterthought. And just as Lenny is the only person in the theater who doesn't realize that Mace loves him, so is Lenny the last one to smell a rat when Max, Lenny's putative best friend -- a fellow ex-cop in a cheap shoulder-length wig (Tom Sizemore at his creepiest) -- enters. Max obviously knows more than he cares to let on about the mystery of the anonymous snuff clips that start falling into Lenny's lap. (Lenny has always drawn the line at snuff clips, which he calls blackjacks, although he gladly handles the opening restaurant robbery clip that ends with the death of one of the robbers. The film makes no attempt to explain this apparent contradiction.) And we haven't even mentioned the pseudo-concert footage of Juliette Lewis pretending to be a rock singer, the actress succumbing to every cliched mannerism and tired affectation while performing PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me." What was Bigelow (or Cameron or Cocks) thinking?

All of these excursions receive only cursory development. They feel like token attempts by filmmakers who have lost sight of their basic premise to cover as many bases as possible. Instead of an artful dodger dancing on the edge of the apocalypse, Lenny becomes just another action-movie protagonist caught up in a contrived love triangle with murderous consequences.

Bigelow is much more successful at rendering an image of Los Angeles four years from now that feels at once familiar and futuristic. As the title implies, her vision of the City of Angels (and by extension the rest of the world) is spiritually consistent with that of another chronicler of the city's dark side: Jim Morrison. Strange days, indeed. Bigelow portrays the metropolis as a brutally violent, morally bankrupt human cesspool where crime runs rampant, the wreckage of burning cars litters the streets, racism pits cops against the people they are supposed to protect, and the ever-present chaos reinforces the drive for immediate sensory gratification -- in other words, not too different from the way it is right now.

But Bigelow and company insist on picking lint with all their unnecessary subplots while the larger thematic thread unravels. They start out probing how our obsessive search for momentary escape from an eroding outside world only hastens our collapse but quickly cave in to serving up a generic good guy/bad guy tale. Lenny Nero makes the most of his shot at redemption; too bad the same cannot be said for the entire movie. But like Angela Bassett, it looks great.

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