Low-lifes on parade

Strange Days spikes your popcorn with entertaining sleaze

As if the Los Angeles Police Department didn't have a big enough public-relations disaster after the O.J. Simpson murder case, along comes Strange Days, a futuristic action thriller whose entire convoluted plot depends on one act of racist violence by an LAPD cop.

Judging by the unprecedented level of media scrutiny granted to race issues following the jury's decision, you might think our collective ire would still be stirred by a high-octane drama that places race relations at the center of a national Judgment Day. In this case, the day is December 31, 1999, the end of a millennium but, in this smart, occasionally lurid, chaotic technological fantasy, the start of a debate about the relationship between the entertainment industry and individual responsibility.

Strange Days is a collaborative vision between filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, who directed 1990's occasionally campy but still enthralling police thriller Blue Steel and the throwaway Keanu Reeves-Patrick Swayze vehicle Point Break, and writer-producer Jim Cameron, who has directed several of the biggest action pictures of the last 10 years, including Schwarzenegger's Terminator movies.

In their view, our urban centers are about to disintegrate into round-the-clock, north-south-east-west hellholes. Los Angeles is their prototype, a teeming, dimly lit anthill where people buy and sell dreams.

We're talking about the entertainment industry as lucrative black-market commodity, not Hollywood or network television here. In 1999, dealers really do sell dreams, because virtual-reality technology has advanced to include not just sight and sound, but nerve stimulation as well. As with heroin and LSD before it, it's just a short hop from the scientists' lab to the hands of street-corner hedonists. Folks who've built up a tolerance for the illicit thrills on TV and the movie screen can, for the right price, wire their brains to a portable device that will indulge their most secret desires, from any kind of sex you can imagine to the adrenaline-fueled experience of violent crimes like rape and murder.

The cocky but ultimately weak-willed anti-hero of Strange Days is Lenny Nero (British actor Ralph Fiennes), who plays an ex-vice officer peddling illegal virtual reality programs to Japanese businessmen and high-tech junkies alike. Lenny throws himself into a cover-up that involves the LAPD; his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), a hooker turned rock star who's become the favorite playtoy of a psychotic record company president named Philo Gant (Michael Wincott, whose sandpaper voice and savage squint enlivened Oliver Stone's Talk Radio and The Crow); and the assassination of a hip-hop singer turned African-American activist named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). All these elements come to a head on the last night of the millennium, at a gigantic New Year's party in downtown Los Angeles where Lenny must ultimately be rescued by his best buddy "Mace" Mason, a karate-chopping, steel-willed chauffeur-bodyguard played with Amazonian relish by Angela Bassett.

Strange Days is exhilaratingly entertaining, at times even hypnotic in the assured way Bigelow swings from tightly wound verbal confrontations to hairpin chase sequences. It's also too ambitious for its own good. Here the potent imagination of writer-co-producer Jim Cameron is most apparent. With opuses like the first Alien sequel and the cheeky Schwarzenegger-Jamie Lee Curtis safari True Lies, Cameron is like the Pavarotti of action films, a man whose thrilling confidence with grandly emotional material is as much the show as the material itself. You can feel his presence as much as Bigelow's in this film, most notably in the structure of Cameron's and Jay Cocks' screenplay. Like the rest of his films, Strange Days is heavily dependent on abrupt reversals of fortune and twists in allegiance that sometimes ring hollow. (In this movie, the entire last sequence inside a Los Angeles hotel is predicated on Lenny's obsession with Faith, who has aggressively rejected him so many times that his persistence becomes a plot necessity rather than a credible feature of his character.)

The menu of themes offered by Strange Days is diverse and daunting--American race relations, and the avalanche gathering over our heads that is the communications age. But the last 20 minutes of the film feels like a 10-car pile-up on the freeway. Bigelow and Cameron are forced to dart in and out of little cubbyholes in the subplot, tidying up the mess in every dark corner they've exposed. Still, to complain that such a blatantly commercial piece of American cinema offers audiences too many ideas seems, if not nitpicky, then at least ungrateful. Strange Days is a raucous, gritty theme park ride where you'll enjoy the action even more if you keep your brain idling in fourth.

Strange Days. 20th Century Fox. Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis. Screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Now showing.

 
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