December 31, 1999: On the eve of the new Millennium, with the national economy in shambles, the city of Los Angeles is a war zone jam-packed with armored tanks and armed-to-the-teeth national guard soldiers patrolling the streets. Meanwhile, life goes on as usual for Angelenos.
Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) is ex-L.A.P.D. and currently makes a living on the black market selling other people’s memories recorded on computer disc media. The discs were burned using the latest technology referred to as “playback” on the street. Playback allows the user to experience a recorded event in the first person, that is, not merely via standard audio-visual input, but stimulation right down to his cerebral cortex. Playback is wildly popular and highly illegal. Lenny is hung up on former girlfriend, Faith (Juliette Lewis) who has since shacked up with a slime bag record producer by the name of Filo (Michael Wincott) in hopes of getting a recording contract. In his spare time, Lenny uses playback to re-live his recorded memories with Faith.
Macy (Angela Bassett) is a limo driver. She has an eight year old son and an ex-gang banging husband in the slammer. She knows Lenny because he participated in the raid on her home when the ex was hauled off in cuffs. Lenny was the cop consoling her son when his father was taken away. Lenny occasionally sees Macy during his daily routine, but they don’t have a lot of interaction. She doesn’t have much interest in spending time with him because of the way he makes his living.
It’s business as usual until one of Lenny’s hooker acquaintances (Brigitte Bako) turns up dead, but not before she manages to get a playback disc to him containing the recorded details of her last trick. Thereafter, Lenny involves Macy, and, his buddy, Max (Tom Sizemore) who is also ex-L.A.P.D., and is presently employed by Filo as a bodyguard. Max checks in with Lenny regularly to report back on Faith. In the meantime, black rapper and civil rights activist, Jericho 1, is reported in the news as dead. Not much news there since black rappers always eventually end up getting shot by one of their own anyway. Or so it would seem.
Despite the cyberpunk-like hype surrounding the movie, at its fundamental core, Strange Days is a racial revenge fantasy masquerading as a science fiction murder mystery. Considering the 1995 release date –a mere three years following the Rodney King debacle –race rioting is still a fresh memory. The war between the then mostly Caucasian Establishment, as personified by the LAPD, and Black Angelenos (where are the Mexicans and everyone else?) is very much alive. In fact, the entire movie seems to be an homage to civil insurrection motivated partially by racial inequality (for Blacks) but mostly by belligerence. As an aside here, it’s ironic how Hollywood has backed down from the race card rostrum lately since the Obama Administration. As if racial bias has somehow been eliminated. Newsflash: We have still have racial discrimination in the U.S., it’s just the reverse kind now. But I digress.
The character of Jericho 1 (Glenn Plummer) represents the ongoing conflict between law enforcement and rebellious youth. And his death, although perpetrated by a couple of hillbilly LAPD officers (Vincent D’onfrio & William Fichter), is not reported as such (because no one knows about it yet) is perceived instead by the fans as the by-product of his gangster lifestyle. The movie portrays the community as a great mass of unwashed, ignorant junkies and star-fuckers always on high alert for the next me-too trend in a city already devolved into a third world shit hole, which is a fairly accurate description of L.A., in my opinion.
When Lenny & Macy discover the contents of the playback Iris (the hooker) left behind for Lenny, the last 15 minutes of the film ties up the revenge fantasy all nice & neat for the viewer –right down to the beating of (Macy/Bassett) by the riot squad in the street. But this time, the crowd timidly intervenes and manages to stop the beating.
I should mention here that this intervention between Macy and the riot squad by the rowdy crowd (comprised predominantly of street thugs & wannabes) wasn’t very believable on any level. Envision throngs of raucous, disaffected malcontents in downtown L.A. on New Year’s Eve celebrating what most believe is the last day of the world. Meanwhile live bands play strident, electric guitar-led anthems all the while as people party it up in the congested streets high on drugs & booze –basically doing whatever the hell they want– but somehow, suddenly these thousands of party-goers become restrained when a few cops in riot gear show up. It’s an end-of-the-world party, and, the ratio of civilian to cop was at least 100 to 1, so I’m not sure what the hell writer/producer James Cameron, or director Kathryn Bigelow had in mind here, but I didn’t buy it. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but this is pure fantasy. In reality, given the circumstances, the riot squad would have been toast.
Further, Ralph Fiennes (best known for his role as Lord Voldemort) in the title role was unadulterated bullshit. Not only was it hard to swallow that the Lenny character used to be a cop, but Fiennes’s barely contained English accent caused him to mumble all of his lines. (There weren’t any third rate, American actors available for this one-dimensional, shithead character…Really?) Additionally, Angela Bassett playing the role of a subdued black female limo driver makes about as much sense as making Stallone a British literature professor. (There’s only so much disbelief a viewer can suspend before common sense takes over and asks, What the hell?)
In the final analysis, my opinion of this movie is not very complimentary mostly because it appears that producer Cameron wanted to cash in on the then latest cyberpunk phenomena without actually having to acknowledge the guy who created it. (William Gibson). But his race driven content falls flat on its face; the film is nothing more than a glorified soapbox named after an old Doors’ tune (Strange Days) to flesh out trendy, politically correct talking points.
I enjoy Cameron’s movies when he sticks to straight sci fi such as Aliens, but I can live without the politically motivated bloviations that are front & center in a movie like this one. Hey James? I know this is about a decade and-a-half too late, but leave the lets-all-just-get-along and down-with-the-man themed flicks to Spike Lee.