Many know Kathryn Bigelow from her Academy Award winning and nominated films of recent years. However, her earlier work features some stunning films that showcase a brilliant visionary style, and no other movie reflects that better than Strange Days. Released in my favorite year in film, 1995, it bombed at the box office, but gained quite a lot of praise. Roger Ebert even gave it a four out of four stars, and it was nominated for several Saturn Awards including Best Science Fiction Film with Bigelow winning for Best Director. Time has since allowed for this film to gain a wider appreciation from genre fans, and I’ve wanted to share mine with you for quite a while now. Strange Days is essentially the Blade Runner of the 1990’s, but even Blade Runner doesn’t do to me what Strange Days does.
It’s the eve of the millennium in Los Angeles, December 31, 1999. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop turned street hustler who preys on human nature by dealing the drug of the future. A new technology, called “wire tripping,” allows for anyone to re-live actual life experiences tapping directly into the cerebral cortex for the ultimate escapist high. However, Lenny is soon tangled up in a deadly plot, alongside limousine driver and security specialist Mace (Angela Bassett), when a set of murderous and controversial wire trip recordings end up in his possession that could have radical implications upon the entire city. It’s an environment that will lead him deep into the danger zone when he falls into a maze filled with intrigue and betrayal, murder and conspiracy.
Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a time, and even after their marriage ended, they remained regular collaborators. Cameron was a producer on this film, co-screenwriter, and an uncredited editor. I can definitely see his creative influence at work. It’s that real depth of humanity on display with all of these colorful characters, real penetrating emotion, exciting science fiction ideas, and the exciting energy of storytelling which harkens back to The Terminator. His creative fingerprints are clearly here, and they are wrapped up in Bigelow’s razor sharp pacing, incredible direction, and mind blowing visuals.
The look of the movie definitely has that dystopian vibe with a lot of grit, smoke, neon, and seedy locales. Yet, it doesn’t look depressing, but instead, it’s exciting and intense. The cinematography is just simply stunning, and it will escape me to no end how Batman Forever got nominated at the Oscars for Best Cinematography this year while Strange Days was entirely snubbed as well as The Usual Suspects, Seven, and Twelve Monkeys. All of those are vastly superior looking and shot films on every level, and Strange Days is really in a league all its own from the signature James Cameron blue tinge style to Bigelow’s really dynamic visual edge that absorbs us fully into this dark, vibrant, mind-twisting reality. The camera work is amazingly dynamic, intriguing, and inspired. It’s a visual feast that really embraces a kinetic energy without ever sacrificing artistic integrity. If you took Blade Runner and hyper-charged it with adrenalin and a riveting edge of flash, you would get Strange Days.
The movie jacks you into a wire trip from the start to clearly convey the language of the experience. People are buying these recordings to experience the forbidden pleasures in life like armed robbery or sexual desires. It’s an extremely tempting thing that gives you all the rush and excitement without consequence, but it’s entirely illegal forcing Lenny to be the king of this underground business. Thus, he comes into the center of two related criminal plots. The first involves a pair of corrupt cops, portrayed by William Fichtner and Vincent D’Onofrio, tracking down a damning wire trip recording that could erupt the entire city in violence and outrage. The second is someone who stalked, raped, and murdered a friend of Lenny’s, and now is focusing his sick and disturbing torment on Lenny himself. All of this melds together into a larger conspiracy that engulfs these characters into a powerful dramatic story that rips and tears at emotions with severe risks and consequences.
Now, I absolutely love Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero. He’s the real crux of this whole film energizing it with his slick charm and charisma. He’s a mesmerizing salesman selling fantasies with the sensation of pure, raw reality. Yet, he never comes across as sleazy. Fiennes makes Lenny very genuine in everything he does, and thus, he is the perfect unlikely hero with a yearning broken heart, a life of down and out black market seediness, and a real vulnerable quality to him. Ralph Fiennes is an incredible actor, and he makes this a very deeply human and emotionally vulnerable character that draws you completely into the film. Lenny Nero is not a man who views himself as a hero, but the frightening descent that he is caught up in forces him to take action, especially with his former love Faith, portrayed greatly by Juliette Lewis, at the center of it. Faith has fully fallen into the deep end of the sleaze as a rock singer hooked up with Michael Wincott’s wire trip addicted record label owner Philo Gant. Lenny desperately wants to win her back, or at least, pull her out of that deep end. As a side note, I really love the wardrobe of Lenny Nero. It’s very stylish and flashy with plenty of unique personality, much like Lenny himself.
Angela Bassett is absolutely bad ass here in a very gritty, powerful way. Mace is exceptionally tough not taking any crap from Lenny, who hustles and leeches favors off her when he’s down and out, and as a security specialist, she can back up every ounce of that attitude. Bassett exudes energy and strength in every frame, and intensifies every moment. I’ve always been impressed by Bassett’s mixture of tough exterior with a tender interior. She definitely brings that out in Mace with all the raw emotional power possible.
Now, you talk about Academy Award quality work, I honestly believe that both Bassett and Fiennes achieved that in this film. Had Strange Days not fallen under the radar, I believe it would have been heralded with that kind of reverence at the time. Both Bassett and Fiennes deliver stunning, deeply powerful performances, and the script fuses Lenny and Mace together in a very personal way born out of tragedy and heartbreak. Furthermore, the chemistry between Bassett and Fiennes is spectacular. They spark off amazingly whether it’s sharp wit and humor, vehement conviction, or deep emotional drama. They are an electrifying pair which forge a riveting gravitas around them, but also make it a fun ride with their great rhythm and heart.
This film is just filled with an array of exceptional acting talents putting forth their best. From Tom Sizemore to Juliette Lewis to William Fichtner to Vincent D’Onofrio to Michael Wincott, the supporting cast is bursting with charisma, awesomeness, and solidarity. Everyone is equally as compelling and vibrant creating a very electrifying ensemble. Under Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, everyone delivers a powerful and intensely memorable performance. Bigelow seems to very much favor Sizemore as he appeared in Blue Steel and Point Break with much smaller roles, but here, he’s given a very prominent role as Max, a friend of Lenny’s who is still on the police force that weaves himself tightly into this plot.
On top of having that mind-blowing, amazing cast, Bigelow delivers an exciting, riveting thriller. The mysteries are wonderfully interwoven with all the character dynamics, volatile social climate, and science fiction tech elements. There’s wickedly tight tension and heart-pounding excitement at every turn. The powder keg of Los Angeles is building towards an explosion, and the lethality of the situation only builds as forces converge. This is a movie that constantly pushes further and further along the razor’s edge of madness, suspense, and danger. Surely, there is action here handled with the riveting intensity that Bigelow demonstrated with Point Break, but saturated with larger doses of style and exhilaration, if that’s even imaginable. The two corrupt cops dousing Mace’s limo with gasoline and lighting it on fire forcing her to drive it into in the bay, and then, make a shotgun glass shattering escape to avoid drowning is superbly executed, as is everything here. This film is soaked in emotion and thrilling, edge of your seat suspense, but still finds those moments of pure entertainment to make it a greatly fun experience.
Surely, the odd aspect of the film is that it was released in 1995 and takes place in the year of 1999 featuring a very radical decline in society. It’s a very narrow jump into the future. However, I really do like that it uses that “end of the millennium” sort of craziness and chaos to enhance every aspect of the film. Strange Days also reflects a lot of early 90’s Los Angeles culture with the earthquakes, riots, and police brutality incidents, and so, it feels very encapsulating of what one could pessimistically feel the future of that Los Angeles could have been. People are packing assault rifles, cops are wearing tactical riot gear, and the entire city looks like it’s on the edge of all our war. This is the vibe and energy that Bigelow injects into the fiber of the film, and it really erupts in the film’s climax. Strange Days is more than just a cyberpunk thriller, it has real social commentary on the darkest parts of society with shocking consequences. The climax leaves me speechless. I really don’t have the words reserved to describe it. There is no easy road taken in this story, and nothing is handled lightly. This is a hard hitting, gritty, visceral film that holds nothing back on any level.
Fueling all of that is a stellar score by Graeme Revell and a very aggressive soundtrack of mid-1990s electronic, heavy metal, and edgy music. Every creative element of this movie is jacked into that kinetic, cyberpunk style that soars to magnificent heights. It’s a pure encapsulation of a stunning vision by Bigelow built on the foundation of a rock solid, stunningly intelligent screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks.
Strange Days is a brilliant, incredible movie with a lot of strong thematic material, wickedly amazing performances, and a spectacular visual style. This is one of the best and most original movies I have ever seen. My mind was blown all over again watching it for this review. Kathryn Bigelow would not be nominated for an Academy Award until 2010, but the evidence of her shockingly amazing talent was evident in 1995 with Strange Days. This is a film that deserves vastly more exposure, credit, and accolades than it has received. Surely, Point Break fulfills every action film adrenalin rush satisfaction for me, but this is the remarkable, awe-inspiring film experience. This is surely, without a doubt, the far superior film of the two, but both deliver on every promise and exceed expectations every step of the way. My recommendation is that you must see this movie no matter what!
My summer movie season last year mostly sucked, and by the end of August, I just didn’t want to step foot inside another theatre for a long while. That was unfortunate for when Dredd was released in late September. I couldn’t get enthused for anything despite all the rave reviews this film got. Fortunately, I don’t seem to be alone in discovering this on the home video format as its sales and rentals have been on fire in the last two weeks. Thus, in the frigid icy winter weather, I dashed over to the Redbox outside of the CVS Pharmacy and rented it. So, what’s the simplest statement I can give to this film? It’s that I have no criticisms to levy against it. Dredd is AWESOME!
The future America is an irradiated waste land. On its East Coast, running from Boston to Washington DC, lies Mega City One – a vast, violent metropolis where criminals rule the chaotic streets. The only force of order lies with the urban cops called “Judges” who possess the combined powers of judge, jury and instant executioner. Known and feared throughout the city, Dredd (Karl Urban) is the ultimate Judge, challenged with ridding the city of its latest scourge – a dangerous drug epidemic that has users of “Slo-Mo” experiencing reality at a fraction of its normal speed. During a routine day on the job, Dredd is assigned to train and evaluate Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie with powerful psychic abilities thanks to a genetic mutation. A heinous crime calls them to a neighborhood where fellow Judges rarely dare to venture – a 200 storey vertical slum controlled by prostitute turned drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her ruthless clan. When they capture one of the clan’s inner circle, Ma-Ma overtakes the compound’s control center and wages a dirty, vicious war against the Judges that proves she will stop at nothing to protect her empire. With the body count climbing and no way out, Dredd and Anderson must confront the odds and engage in the relentless battle for their survival.
Dredd is just full-on hard R-rated action that is brutal and relentless. Yet, it is not dumb by any means. Alex Garland wrote a very smart screenplay that keeps things rather simple, but has its own dramatic depth and character strengths. We don’t get long sit-downs with the characters to pine over their emotions and back stories. Instead, we get insights into them in solid, succinct moments that work towards the momentum of the film. Dredd himself remains hardened throughout never allowing anything to crack his weathered, tough exterior. However, the depth we get from him is in what he does, not so much what he exudes. He is a strict enforcer and abider of the law. He follows it to the letter, and doesn’t just kill someone because this is a graphic action film. His intentions are clearly stated making us aware of who is suited to be executed and who isn’t, and Dredd’s threats carry grave weight. He’s also calm, collected, and confident. He never lashes out. He’s calculated in everything he does. This guy is a bonafide bad ass who has been very weathered by this post-apocalyptic world that needs order more than anything else, and he’s deadest dedicated to that ideal. The situation that he’s in here, it’s just like every other day to him. For instance, when told to put Anderson in the deep end of the job, he says, “It’s all deep end.” This guy’s been through the worst this world has to offer, and he’s not afraid of any level of danger.
Karl Urban was a perfect fit for Judge Dredd. I’ve enjoyed him in every role I’ve seen him in from The Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Riddick to The Bourne Supremacy. He always seems to dedicate himself fully to all his roles, and he has some impressive talent that will carry him far. It also takes a special actor, dedicated to the character, to have his face almost entirely covered for the entire film. Dredd never removes his helmet, and we never see his face. Just that mouth and chin area is all we get, and some actors simply wouldn’t allow their face to never be seen on camera either by ego or principle. Urban doesn’t have that problem, and that quality of Dredd works to his advantage. It’s reflective of his attitude. He’s not the type to open up about himself, or allow any glimmer of weakness to show through. That aggressive visage of that helmet and visor create his ill-tempered demeanor, and Urban entirely absorbs himself into that mindset. Putting on that harder, gruffer voice mixed with a little bit of beard stubble and his grim expression creates a great heavy, gritty presence. He gives us the kind of bad ass, hardened character that I’ve not seen in a long time. It follows in the tradition of Snake Plissken and the Punisher, but it is that vehement dedication to law and justice which separates him from those sorts of anti-heroes. Urban sells this role with everything he’s got, and delivers on every level. This is a role that could easily become cliché in the wrong hands, but with Urban, Dredd is a serious force to be reckoned with that never fails to be interesting.
The character of Anderson is really handled greatly. She’s a fine counterpoint to Dredd in that she does have anxieties, apprehensions, and an emotional core to struggle with throughout the film. Carrying out an execution is not easy for her, but she does her job, regardless. The little details about her past are dropped in very comfortably, and work into the story seamlessly. Her psychic abilities make for an excellent cog in the plot, and even makes for some appropriately humorous moments. I think the best action films know how to drop in a little bit of humor and levity without it betraying the tone of the overall film. Dredd is no exception. Her psychic abilities even give us one very whacked out sequence where she goes into the head of Kay. It’s sexy, graphic, and frenetic in the most schizophrenic way. The beautiful Olivia Thirlby is truly excellent as Judge Anderson. She inhabits that very green rookie sensibility without falling onto clichés. There’s a genuine weight to what she brings to this role showing that Anderson is highly capable, but does not yet have the experience to hone her skills and emotions properly. Anderson has an excellent arc that has some fine pay-off in the end from Dredd himself. It’s a big learning experience for her that really fleshes the character out. She doesn’t get lost in Dredd’s shadow at all, and I think the filmmakers did an excellent job at that.
Also, Lena Headey portrays one deranged, depraved villain. She’s not “off the walls” crazy as the performance is rather subdued, but Ma-Ma does some crazy random violence that would require an R rating just to mention it. She’s a total sociopath, and really enjoys her torture to a grisly degree. She isn’t just going to kill you. That’s not enough. She’s going to send a message with your body, and make it loud and clear with a giant splat on the concrete! She’s sick and twisted complete with a scarred face, and it’s a glorious villain for a gloriously graphic action movie! The rest of the cast is rock solid with no one giving anything less than a top notch, full force performance.
The cinematography on this movie is really amazing. What stands out the most is the design of the “Slo-Mo” sequences. The high speed photography makes everything appear to be running in ultra slow motion, creating a gorgeous spectacle, aided by some CGI enhancements, that is simply stunning. It makes for a very enveloping experience along with the very aural, ethereal score to mimic the sensation this narcotic stimulates in its users. Conversely, everything beyond that is very gritty and textured. The sprawling landscape of Mega City One is very epic, and a desaturated color palette is used to set the grim tone right from the start. Dredd avoids making this some Blade Runner clone, and adopts its own realistic style for this industrialized and economically crumbling metropolis. The cinematography gives this film weight, scope, and depth that elevates its above your expectations. The action is all shot superbly showing full competence in how to stage and photograph even the most blisteringly intense sequences. Anthony Dod Mantle deserves an exceptional level of credit for the work he did shooting this picture, and giving such a solid and powerful visual style.
The action itself is bloody and brutal with people regularly getting shot in the face! If Dredd’s going to pass a sentence of death upon you, he’s going to wipe you out in the most explicit way possible. Maybe he’ll burn your skull from the inside out, set you ablaze, or maybe he’ll just pound some bullets into you. He does not hesitate, and he never wavers in his job. And of course, the villains dish out their own heavy duty warfare as well. Their biggest attempt at taking out Dredd and Anderson is when they unleash not one but two hardcore Gatling guns that rip through concrete destroying an entire level of the complex. It’s wicked awesome! There are numerous diverse sequences here that keep the action always interesting and immensely intense, and they are all handled superbly. One of the coolest sequences is when Dredd and Anderson bust in on some guys who are doing Slo-Mo, and thus, nearly all the action unfolds in that ultra slow motion style. Bullets rip through flesh in the most stunning way possible to where it’s practically gruesome artistry. I am just amazed at the depth of vision injected into this movie with sequences like that.
Dredd features an excellent, hard edged score by Paul Leonard-Morgan. He makes excellent use of driving, pulsating synth beats and some stellar distorted rock guitar. This is essentially a heavy metal synth score that actually works insanely well because of the hard hitting, gritty style of the movie, but also, it never bombards you. It flows along with the action and momentum of the film. The synthesizers really give the film more of an ominous, foreboding, relentless tone that build up the tension and anticipation while the guitars are there to kick ass. It’s almost 1980s like in its musicianship, and it’s always able to bring itself down to a more subtle place, when appropriate. Overall, this is one masterful, edgy, exhilarating action film score that entirely suits the futuristic, post-apocalyptic grit of Dredd.
What I think is most amazing about this movie is that it had only a $45 million budget, but looks like a far higher grade feature than those numbers would suggest. This demonstrates a team of filmmakers who knew about to get the most out of every dollar, and not waste their resources. There is not a single thing that looks cheap anywhere in this film. The sets, costumes, action set pieces, and visual effects are all high caliber quality showcasing amazing craftsmanship and artistry. And for those who care, this was shot in digital 3D, and from what I hear, Dredd looks fantastic in 3D. That is no surprise considering how stunning it looks in 2D. Everyone who worked on this film clearly put everything ounce of effort and passion they had into it, and I believe it exceeded all expectations. Still, I also like that the film doesn’t try to over stretch itself by becoming more than it needed to be. The film is ultimately quite ambitious, but the filmmakers didn’t push the proverbial envelope any further than they needed to with this story. All of the elements are smart and fit together beautifully. There’s a lot of subtle context and ideas within the film between the characters and ideas of justice, but all of it works towards the action centric plot. It’s very focused without being narrow, but never becomes broad.
Flat out, Dredd is an ass kicking, hard hitting bombastic action film that never hesitates to go all out, but never degrades itself with camp value or cheesy set pieces. It’s totally hardcore all the way, and should satisfy the hunger for any true action movie fan that’s desired a return to classic hard R rated films. I’m very impressed by Karl Urban’s performance, and if this were to become a franchise, I believe he could carry it to very exciting, riveting, and intriguing places. Director Pete Travis doesn’t really have much of a track record to speak of, but I hope that Dredd is the beginning of a very successful and notable one for him. This is really a visually magnificent film that brings all of its dynamic elements together into an intense cohesive whole. He has shown me something awesome and amazing with Dredd, and he’s not the only one to credit for it all. A whole team of excellently talent filmmakers came together to really nail this adaptation of the British comic strip. It is creatively successful without a blemish, in my view, and I hope that time will prove Dredd to be commercially successful as well.