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Here’s an unusual hybrid creature: a film that’s packed with action, yet gives the viewer plenty to think about, too. Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, covers the last two days of the millennium. People go to all sorts of extremes. Most of the police are corrupt and some are berserk. On a radio call-in show the topic is, “What’s going to happen tomorrow night?” One caller says, “The economy sucks, gas is over three bucks a gallon, fifth grade kids are shooting each other at recess, the whole thing sucks.” Someone else says of the fin de siecle mood, “:It’s all over, we used it all up.” In the streets, cars burn and the police whack the citizens. Jeriko One, leader of the black militants, has prophesied that 2K will be the Day of Reckoning. Racial tension notswithstanding, there’s a whole lot of interracial dating, and in South Central L.A. they’re still listening to rap.

Ralph Fiennes, as Lenny Nero, is a beautiful loser: wonderfully handsome, charismatic, raffish and doomed. On December 30, it’s business as usual for Nero, an ex-cop now participating in the underground economy as a purveyor of dangerous contraband. What he sells is vicarious experience, in the form of hardware and software products that give the user instantaneous virtual reality. The way it works is, a sqid head (sqid stands for superconducting quantum interference device) wears the recording equipment, a spidery headset that can be hidden under a wig. Then he does something exciting, like armed robbery or falling off a tall building. Of course it’s just as often a woman who makes a recording of her experience, such as witnessing the murder of a radical by rogue cops, or perhaps even her own death by torture. The sqid headgear has no wire, but the recorder can’t be farther than five or six feet away.

The playback is what people pay for. The recordings are little disks, but are also called tapes, in much the same way that a CD is also called an album. Jacking in is the ultimate in virtual reality. There are no clumsy datagloves or body suits – there’s only the fact of being someone else, experiencing their experience. Like any other tool, this can be used in a positive or negative way. Nero makes a tape for his legless friend to let him feel again what it’s like to run along the beach. On the other end of the scale is blackjack, a snuff clip, where the wearer dies.

The concept and terminology of wiretripping are borrowed from William Gibson’s Neuromancer and other cyberpunk works, as well as the lexicons of heroin addiction and computers. To play back a tape is to “boot” it. When someone commits a gruesome rape-murder, Nero says of the perpetrator, “He’s jacking her into his own outfit. She’s seeing herself.” When one character gets his brain fried by over-amplified signals, another says, “He’s been cooked off.”

To his customers, Nero is both priest and psychiatrist, a “connection to the switchboard of the soul.” It’s his job to find out their deepest, darkest wishes, and sell them a tape that panders to those fantasies. If it’s not available from one of his middlemen, he’ll commission a wearer to produce it.

Nero knows what it is to have a shameful secrets. His besetting vice is jacking in to tapes of his own golden past with his lost love. Faith is played by Juliette Lewis, whose performance here just might be the hottest thing on film. The faithless Faith is a masochist’s wet dream of a bad girl, a slinky vixen who left Nero for a guy who can boost her singing career. She explains to Nero the big advantage that the movies have over the wire – in the movies you know when it’s over. “IT’S OVER!”

Then of course there is the woman who loves Nero and sticks by him through all his bad times. This extremely strong, bold and fearless lady who kicks ass with panache is played by Angela Bassett. At the end he finally realizes – well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

So here they are, in the last hour of the last day of the millennium. In the neighborhoods, there are parties and fireworks everywhere. Downtown the streets are jammed, with bands playing on every corner, people just as crazy as can be, and cops all over the place. The crowd scenes are triumphs of technical filmmaking. In fact, the cinematography in general is pretty amazing.

As the evening progresses, the violence gets worse and the armored personnel carriers roll in. The good guys sneak into “the most sold-out party in history,” trying against all odds to prevent a catastrophe. The bad guys are awfully bad, like the bizarre female bodyguard who looks like a sex kitten and is mean as a snake. Strange Days has lots of blood and shooting and kinky sex. It has a convoluted plot, devious motives, dreadful betrayals, great dialog, and a dead hooker. But hey – “Nothing matters, the world is going to end in ten minutes.”

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