A movie like "Strange Days" may give the end of the world a bad name. It's an extremely unpleasant thriller with the conscience of a Nazi and the smell of a urinal. Afterward you feel like a shower in Lysol and gasossional new-age porn merchant by trade, scrambles fecklessly to find a homicidal maniac against the backdrop of riots on the street and the overwhelming sense that society is about to fall apart. Whenever he gets in trouble, his tough-as-nails girlfriend kicks some butt to get him out.
This manly dude is played by Ralph Fiennes in his Dustin-Hoffman-as-Ratso-Rizzo stage, where the beautifully elegant man has to show us what an actor he is under that porcelain profile. He acts with his stubble, which looks like the vegetation on Iwo Jima; his hair, which is unkempt; and his voice, which sounds like someone playing a Jew's-harp in a wind tunnel. Panic flashes through his beady little eyes, and the sweat blossoms from his forehead like toadstools from a particularly decay-rich earth.
The gimmick -- and it's nothing but -- that sustains the movie is the hypothesized invention of a technological device that turns your entire central nervous system into a VCR. Wired to your skull, it records your brain waves onto a plastic disc. That disc can be played back and its data inserted in to the brain of another so that person then lives briefly and totally in your skull. It's not that he sees what you see or feels what you feel, but by the biology of the nervous system, he virtually becomes you for a bit of time.
The entrepreneurial possibilities of playback are enormous, and the movie appears to take off from a black market in such discs, enabling the chair-bound to get off on violence and death, as well as endless sexual entwinings.
Director Kathryn Bigelow, a cult favorite in search of her first big audience after such mainstream failures as "Blue Steel" and "Point Break," gets the movie going with a blast as she explores the possibilities of the new technology. We watch as Lenny, a hopeless addict to other people's lives, pops a hot disc and goes for a joy ride in the head of an armed robber who rushes into a Chinese restaurant, beats and kicks and threatens people with his gun, is chased by the police, leaps across a gap between buildings but doesn't quite make it, and topples toward the pavement four stories below. Like, ouch, it's a snuff movie from the point of view of the snuffee.
Only a purist would point out that Bigelow has evidently done no research into perception at the highest point of the excitement curve, where tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, gross motor movements and time distortions are the rule, not the exception. She replicates these violent action sequences purely from the point of view of a hand-held camera, but no one at that state ever sees like a hand-held camera.
But too soon it becomes too clear that the device has almost nothing to do with the story and exists only to provide the occasional gratuitous goose when the otherwise complex narrative bogs down. In fact, the technology itself isn't even necessary -- it could be any modern technological device that "records" reality, from videocam to Polaroid to $4.95 Kmart Dispos-a-camera.
Once the technology thing is subtracted, the movie turns out to be an overwrought conspiracy thriller about a police frame-up involving those new goons of America, the LAPD, in the form of two rogue policemen who may or may not have shot a rap star with political ambitions. It leads, pathetically enough, to a cynical re-creation of the Rodney King beating and an evocation of the consequent riots. But as a plot, it's not "The Big Sleep" or even "Devil in a Blue Dress." On the basis of the "minor star with nothing else to do in the movie" gambit, you figure out instantly who did it, and even so, Bigelow has to stop the narrative in its tracks several times for painfully slow recapitulations so it acquires the illusion of sense.
None of the relationships work. Lenny is hopelessly in love with a wannabe rock singer, played by the increasingly irritating Juliette Lewis, who has dumped him for a sleazy record promoter played by Michael Wincott. Meanwhile, Lenny is served powerfully by the film's only interesting character, Angela Bassett as "Mace," his driver. Tom Sizemore hangs around as an ex-cop. Vincent D'Onofrio is around as the baddest of the cops.
What's left is the movie's "look," which is attracting hopeless overpraise. There's not much here. Bigelow's L.A., seething at the flash point of perpetual riot with shock troops roaming the streets and theatrical smoke bombs unleashing white fog everywhere, grows quickly tedious. The action sequences, even the "playbacks," are banal and not terribly original.
But the worst thing is that, through the miracle of playback, Bigelow allows us to participate in the rape and murder of a woman from the killer's point of view. The world rightly threw up when schlock movie makers did this years back. Now someone thinks it's OK because a big studio is fronting it instead of some marginal outfit? "Strange Days" is just a $35 million slasher film.
Starring Ralph Fiennes and Angela Basset
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Released by 20th Century Fox
Rated R (extreme sexual violence)
Sun Score: *