The friend with whom I saw “Strange Days” had to cover her eyes during the violent, intense parts. She saw about five minutes of the movie.
Set on New Year’s Eve 1999, “Strange Days” continues the Nine Inch Nails-ization of America, in which blunt, loud, shocking images beat us to a pulp. The story of Lenny Nero, a lovesick schmuck who deals in playback (video discs that play graphic images of violent and sexual experiences), “Strange Days” is both the year’s most exciting filmmaking and a brutal warning that the apocalypse is now: 2000-zero-zero, Party over/Whoops! Out of time.
Director Kathryn Bigelow frames “Strange Days” as a mystery involving renegade cops, the murder of a famous rapper and a computer disc that contains vital information. But the movie is really a story about what we hold onto when the world around us is in chaos. “Strange Days” presents a Los Angeles where fires burn on every street corner, Santas get mugged and paranoia is your best defense. It’s a movie for everyone who found “Natural Born Killers” too lyrical and genteel.
“Strange Days” seems to get into you almost subconsciously, as a series of sensations. The playback sequences are astonishing, particularly the confused opening scene, a robber’s eye view of a hold-up get-away that makes you feel like you’re leaping from one skyscraper rooftop to another.
The movie goes beyond mere sensation to show how technology and voyeurism rob of us of our humanity. Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is obsessed with a rock singer ex-girlfriend (a fierce Juliette Lewis), fiddling with tapes of their life together while Rome - er, L.A. - burns. The proficient Fiennes has the same problem here as in “Quiz Show” - he’s missing whatever he needs to make us care about him. But Angela Bassett has a heaping helping of that quality, playing Fiennes’ best friend with a blend of dignity, compassion, guts and bravado. As a result, “Strange Days” becomes a film about the lengths we will go to save the people we love.
“Strange Days” falters occasionally, particularly with a plot twist mired in thriller cliches. But this fin de siecle nightmare remains vital because Bigelow makes even the familiar material fresh - you’ve seen a car chase before, for instance, but have you ever seen one shot entirely in close-ups?
Bigelow earns her light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel ending but the disturbing “Strange Days” remains a bright yellow caution sign for the millennium. It says that Hell exists and it’s not as far away as we think.
xxxx “Strange Days” Location: East Sprague, Newport and Coeur d’Alene cinemas. Credits: Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; starring Angela Bassett, Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Lewis Running time: 2:25 Rating: R
Other view Here’s what another critic says about “Strange Days:” Janet Maslin/New York Times: One thing for certain about the furiously talented Kathryn Bigelow: No one will ever say she directs like a girl. Operating at full throttle, using material ablaze with eerie promise, she turns “Strange Days” into a troubling but undeniably breathless joy ride. This film’s forward momentum never stops as the last hours of 1999 slip away, hurtling toward the apocalypse with intense, vividly realized foreboding.