Underrated Movie Memories: Strange Days

Strange Days
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

It’s funny to note that long before she made The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow was an expert director of truly entertaining action films. In 1986, she made her debut with Near Dark. Five years later, she joined forces with her then-husband James Cameron to direct the cheesy but truly entertaining Point Break with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. The success of that movie was what led to her next, and probably best movie as a director. The film was Strange Days.

Although the credit of this film goes primarily to Bigelow, it should be noted that this film was conceived and co-written by none other than James Cameron himself. Although they had unfortunately divorced by the time the film went into production, Cameron knew that Bigelow was more than capable of handling the story of a man named Lenny Nero, a man who dabbles in selling the ultimate in experience: the Wiretrip.

Lenny Nero is played by Ralph Fiennes, in a performance far removed from almost anything else he has played in his career. Set in Los Angeles, California on the last couple of days of the 20th Century, the economy has essentially gone into the toilet. Gas prices are at an all time high, the cops are more dangerous than ever before, and many believe the world is on the verge of ending. For Lenny, his world has been crumbling for quite some time. Ever since his girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis) dumped him for rock star Filo Gant (Michael Wincott), he has been desperate to get his life back on track. Also once a great narcotics officer, he was fired for dealing The Wiretrip, the ultimate drug that gives someone the chance to be anyone. A murderer, a backstabber, a bank robber. You name it, you could be it. Now a freelance Wiretrip dealer in the underground, he makes quite a good income on it. On December 30, 1999, he is given a “snuff” tape of a close friend who is raped and murdered, and not long after, he is given another tape of a murder that could result in the biggest riot in the history of Los Angeles if it gets out to the public.

Trust me, this plot synopsis does nothing to give away any of the film’s big secrets. There are plenty of them to go around. At 145 minutes, Strange Days takes it time in developing all of its major characters, as well as setting up all of the elements that will all come together before its final 20 minutes unfold. Although Lenny Nero is a truly wonderful character, my favorite character of the film is Mace, played wonderfully by Angela Bassett as a strong independent single mother who can easily snap the neck of anyone who gets in her way. This is a truly strong performance by Bassett, made even better by her final moments when you think she might be done for until an incredible thing happens (which I can’t give away without spoiling the moment).

I remember my first experience watching this film when I was in high school. I had heard about this film dating back to around 1996 or so, thinking it was some kind of generic and horribly over-done action film (You know how a lot of them were around that time). It was around 2000 that I finally saw the film late one night on HBO and my initial impression was a very good one, but I remember having reservations about it. Although I liked the film a great deal, I also thought the film was a little slow for my tastes. As the film ended, my reaction was a surprising one. I expected to be bored by this movie, and yet, it held my interest all the way through.. The slow pace had in fact worked for the film’s benefit. It gave the movie time to develop its characters and situations in a way that you felt as if you were getting all of the information you needed to know without feeling cheated or feeling that you knew too much. This can be attributed mainly to the film’s screenplay (by James Cameron and Jay Cocks), which doesn’t miss a beat in developing its characters or ideas. In many ways, although it has set pieces that we have seen before, it is surrounded by original ideas that have since come to fruition or can still occur in the coming years. Although the time the film was set in has passed, it has proven a number of things that have actually happened (High gas prices, crippling economy, and advanced technology among other things).

The movie also includes a slew of interesting and stellar performances by its supporting players, including Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Glenn Plummer, Vincent D’Onofrio, William Fichtner, Richard Edson, and Josef Sommer. Each actor brings something interesting to the table with each of their roles, and their isn’t a beat that feels  misstepped in any of them. The only role that feels a little off-kilter (and I say this in a good way) is Richard Edson. He plays the character of Tick, Lenny’s supplier of the Wiretrip clips, and his performance is one of craziness. It works well for the character, but I can see him being an acquired taste for some, as he can be a little too crazy for them.

In many ways, the same complaint can probably be made for Tom Sizemore, who plays Max, Lenny’s best friend. Unlike Edson, though, his performance is one of layers upon layers. Just when you think you know who he is, the film surprises us by making him a truly quirky character. In fact, I think he gets many of the film’s best and funniest lines. In fact, he gets what I think is the film’s most memorable line. I refuse to spoil it for anyone who has not seen the film.

Because of James Cameron’s name and the film’s terrific marketing, you would think that Strange Days was poised to be a box office smash when it was finally released. When the film was released on October 13, 1995, it turned out to be a box office disaster. Some attributed it to the fact that there had been too many movies about technology that had already been released that no one was interested, while others actually complained that the marketing was terrible (You can judge for yourself at the end of this post). What I think is really funny is that none of the film’s previews highlight the fact that the film was a James Cameron production. I have a theory that if the film was willing to go out with James Cameron’s name plastered all over it (It was released a year after True Lies), it would have drawn many moviegoers to the theater on its opening weekend. One thing is certain: It would have made at least $50 million if this had actually happened. What actually happened was that it had the misfortune to open while Seven was the top movie in the country for its third straight week. To add insult to injury, both Jade and The Scarlett Letter (with Demi Moore taking a lot of baths) opened the same week, and both films managed to outgross it. When the film left theatres, its final gross was only $8 million.

In the end, some films are box office flops for a reason: They are just waiting to be discovered on home video. On home video, Strange Days was a huge seller, and since its 1996 home video release, now has quite a cult following. All I can say is that if you haven’t seen Strange Days, then it is my feeling that the time has come to give it an overdue chance. After having watched it again tonight, I was reminded why I fell in love with the film in the first place. This is a first-rate action flick with a brain to match its figure. Even if you think it just a generic action flick, you should see it for yourself and you might be surprised to find what an entertaining film it really is.

On a quick note, now all I want to say is that I can’t wait to see the film on Blu-Ray. Although no date has been announced yet, this is one film that will look amazing on that format when it finally does come out.

Rated R, 145 minutes. Now available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

This entry was posted in 1995, James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Strange Days. Bookmark the permalink.

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