The themes of film noir are ultimately timeless so what better way to explore them than by setting them in the future? Yes, there’s no trilbies or trench coats in Strange Days but film noir had costume which was contemporary at the time and the costumes of Strange Days are nineties grunge.
Set during New Year’s Eve 1999 (which was four years into the future then and nearly seventeen years into the past now), ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes- yes really!) has obtained some top-secret equipment from the Feds that allows a person to record directly from their cerebral cortex and for others to watch the recordings.
Lenny makes a good illegal living out of peddling pornographic experiences but draws the line at snuff movies (or 'blackjacks' as he calls them). When he stumbles across a particularly nasty snuff movie involving an acquaintance, he vows to track down the perpertrator. At the same time, he wants to win back his trashy ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). Accompanied by his friend, driver Macie (Angela Bassett), together they uncover police corruption involving the death of a political rapper.
The BFI put together a handy infographic to decide what makes a film noir and Strange Days ticks a lot of those boxes: Lenny is an investigator; Faith is a femme fatale who Lenny just can’t stay away from; the film is set in LA entirely at night, apart from a couple of memories set in daylight and the plot is certainly farfetched and complicated. And the central piece of technology is literally obsession with the past.
Back to the casting of Ralph Fiennes- an odd choice for an all-American cop but the incongruity gives him the outsider status that makes him a true maverick and thus more interesting than casting a Hollywood actor. Despite his dodgy business, Lenny is actually quite sweet, although it’s a wonder that seeing as he tests his merchandise and sees some truly horrific stuff that he isn’t completely messed up.
Much of the film is a bit of a stretch, with LA as a police state to rival dystopias set further into the future, and despite some clever frenetic camerawork to mimic the point of view of a man in a violent robbery, director Kathryn Bigelow can’t make it distinct enough from simply video recording what’s happening.
James Cameron/Jay Cocks as writer tries by giving Lenny a speech in which he boasts that he can make people’s darkest fantasies come true. Even Fiennes can’t pull off a line like ‘Santa Claus of the subconscious’.
Alongside the techno-perversity, there’s social commentary on police corruption and institutionalised racism (which is also pretty noir as well). The murdered rapper turned martyr is not entirely convincing but Angela Bassett's character Macie feels more plausible and Bassett manages to carry off the racial tension theme. She has good chemistry with Fiennes and whilst she is more kick ass than a chauffeuse should be, Bassett gives her the integrity and feistiness that makes her really likeable.
Juliette Lewis doesn’t bring any likeability at all to Faith or the seductive qualities of a femme fatale- and personally I can’t stand her singing- but she’s not in it that much.
The film was a flop at the box office and it remains flawed but its dark cynical mood and Bigelow/Cameron’s willingness to explore voyeurism in all its perversity makes it an oddity worth watching and a great film to conclude noir week.