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!
There are so many action movie classics that people call the best, but for me, Point Break is a special, unique film that is, without a doubt, my favorite action movie of all time. What compels me about this movie that beyond all others is the intense relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. It creates this amazingly unique dynamic that forges the entire electric, kamikaze adrenalin rush of this film. So, let’s delve into Kathryn Bigelow’s action classic.
Rookie FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) goes undercover to infiltrate a cache of Southern California surfers suspected of robbing banks. Utah, a former football player, is assigned to Los Angeles. There, four bank robbers, who wear rubber masks and call themselves “The Ex-Presidents,” have executed a series of successful robberies which embarrassingly have the FBI stumped. Utah, and his partner Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) suspect that the robbers are surfers and hatch a plan for catching them, but the deeper Utah gets connected to the charismatic adrenalin driven Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and the beautiful Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) the harder it is for him to jump off this tidal wave of danger and excitement.
Point Break absolutely lives up to its premise as being 100% pure adrenalin. The surfing aspect is just the entryway into this, but it remains at the core of the whole film. That elevated experience shared by Bodhi and Johnny, specifically, is what fuses those two characters together, and is treated with great respect by the filmmakers. The skydiving sequences escalate that to another level with breathtaking cinematography that envelopes you in the experience, and make for a radically insane sequence where Johnny jumps out of the plane, without a parachute, to capture the escaping Bodhi. The earlier chase sequence is visceral and intense that really utilizes a rougher style of camera exceptionally well. And of course, the bank robberies are slam banged into a high gear that shows just how proficient and threatening the Ex-Presidents are. It is no wonder why the FBI has not been able to catch them after twenty-seven banks over three years. Wrap all of this up, and you’ve got a film that goes for the physical thrill of the moment over special effects spectacle. It’s really all about the character dynamics and these scenarios of extreme rushes that provide the high octane exhilaration of Point Break.
Beyond just the action, the core of this film’s compelling energy are the excellent arcs for both Johnny and Bodhi. You see Special Agent Utah at the start being this fresh from the academy FBI rookie all straight laced and green, but you can see the eagerness underneath that later fuels that adrenalin junkie urge. Johnny and Bodhi become genuinely intertwined in a naturally evolving way that inches Utah further towards that kamikaze impulse. Bodhi’s charisma and aura sucks Johnny right in, but it’s never manipulative. Everything Bodhi conveys is honest straight to his core, and every word of it energizes Johnny. Most action films have a clear delineation between the protagonist and the antagonist, but here, things are not so clean cut. Once Johnny is caught up in Bodhi’s tsunami of pure adrenalin, there’s no way out, and he has to ride it out all the way to its heart pounding, violent end. Bodhi will push everything to its absolute breaking point while risking everything and everyone in the process, and there is a price to pay for it.
Quite frankly, this would have to be the movie that made me a serious Keanu Reeves fan. A lot of people give him crap, but I give him a lot of credit. There’s a great deal of subtle development of Johnny Utah between Reeves’ performance and Bigelow’s direction. This all occurs as he further embraces the philosophy of Bodhi and his love for Tyler. Keanu Reeves and Lori Petty have very pure, heartwarming chemistry. Tyler is vibrant and full of brightness that adds glowing life to Johnny. Meanwhile, as the connection between Johnny and Bodhi intensifies, so does the performance of Reeves. Johnny becomes more confident, more determined, and less bound by rules as he is propelled out of control through Bodhi’s deadly thrill ride. I feel Reeves becomes more compelling as the third act shifts into high gear, and Johnny has to has to jump right off the deep end after Bodhi.
Kathryn Bigelow’s direction really envelopes you into Johnny’s mindset whether he’s mesmerized, haunted, elated, or burning with conviction. Through all of this Reeves is genuine and sincere in his emotions. You are kept very closely in tuned with Johnny’s mindset through successes, failures, and conflicts. Point Break is a film that drives everything right to the edge. Every danger, every extreme, every adrenalin rush is pushed to its insane limits at whatever cost imaginable. Bodhi embraces this without hesitation or a moral compass. He’s essentially a barreling freight train unwilling to put on the brakes regardless of what it will cost him.
Patrick Swayze is wickedly good as Bodhi. He envelopes the character entirely in philosophy, conviction, physicality, and spirituality. I love how Bodhi has this ethereal link to the sea, and gains a serenity from surfing while being an extreme adrenalin junkie. Yet, it’s not merely about the thrill with the bank robberies. He has a greater purpose by showing the shackled masses living their mundane, slave to the grind lives that the human spirit is thriving within his crew. Swayze is so electrifying with his natural charisma and intense commitment to the character. When I watch this film, I don’t perceive Patrick Swayze playing a role. I see Bodhi through and through. Swayze is stunningly excellent here, and I’m still a little sad that he is no longer with us. He was an amazingly talented actor, and this should stand as one of his best, most compelling performances.
Rounding out the main cast is Gary Busey in a great, entertaining role as Angelo Pappas. He can be hilariously funny and quirky, but solidly dramatic in the right moments. It’s a really well rounded character portrayed by an actor with the smart talent to balance those elements out perfectly. Plus, there’s John C. McGinley as FBI Director Ben Harp. Surely, he might seem like the stereotypical loud mouthed boss slinging insults around to his subordinates, but McGinley’s such a strongly talented actor that it never comes off as shallow or tired. Add in a touch of smug arrogance, and the character of Harp works dead-on-the-mark in McGinley’s hands.
The musical score by Mark Isham is really fantastic. For one, I love how he captures the enveloping spiritual sense of the sea with smooth, flowing compositions. It’s very beautiful work that reflects the philosophies of Bodhi long before he enters the film officially. There is another gorgeous cue that reflects the mystique of Bodhi that’s only a few chords, but it’s repeated a few times to very magical effect. The action cues are good, yet subtle. Isham never bombards you with pounding percussion.
The soundtrack is energized with songs that capture that Southern California feel from bands such as L.A. Guns, Concrete Blonde, Jimi Hendrix, Public Image Ltd., and capped off with my beloved “Nobody Rides For Free” by Ratt. That song perfectly concludes the film, and reflects the constant energy and excitement that runs through it.
The film really escalates to another level when Johnny realizes who the Ex-Presidents actually are, and that super charges every scene from there on out. The emotions hang on the razor’s edge. For Bodhi, it ups the stakes making the adrenalin rush and peril even more appetizing for him. For Johnny, it creates conflict as he has forged a very close bond and kinship with Bodhi, but is soon forced to do whatever is necessary as Tyler is put into imminent peril. Unlike most action movies such as Die Hard where it’s very straight forward that this is the bad guy and he’s going to die without question, Point Break makes it all far less certain because all of these emotions, some are unexplainable, cloud and complicate the issue. What all of this builds to is possibly my favorite movie ending of all time that entirely departs from all action film expectations.
The relationship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi reaches its apex on a storm soaked beach. Their connection remains electrifying as these two clash, but it’s not the fist fight that makes this as great as it is. Johnny finally has Bodhi in handcuffs ready to put him in a cage for life, but it’s that spiritual kinship between the two that sparks off something unique. All the groundwork for this ending is laid early on in the film in one scene over a bonfire, and the pay-off is amazing to me. Point Break is my favorite action film not because it has the best action sequences, or because of its pleasantly memorable dialogue. It’s because of the culmination of this ending. Everything that these two characters have developed between each other throughout the movie is so smartly interwoven, setup, and punctuated here. It concludes an amazing arc for Johnny Utah who begins as this clean cut rookie FBI Agent who changes into someone driven by impulse, emotion, and that inexplicable sensation he gets out on those waves. He pursues Bodhi down around the world for months on end, but in those final moments with an honest plea from Bodhi that only Johnny can understand fully, you get an ending that breaks a lot of rules in all the right ways. This ending captivates me to no end that I have attempted to homage and replicate in many of my own scripts.
Karthryn Bigelow did not have any real box office success prior to this film, despite turning out some quite good films such as Near Dark and Blue Steel. With Point Break, she really came into fruition with a greatly exciting, fresh, and original summer action picture that really delivered. She shows a great visual style here that pinpoints emotion greatly and really envelopes you into every fiber of this film. Possibly less than half of Bigelow’s movies in her thirty year career have actually been box office successes, and that’s a horrible shame. I think she is an incredible director who showed a great deal of potential here, which she would capitalize upon in with stunning results in Strange Days. Her collaboration on both pictures with now ex-husband James Cameron really shows through in all the best ways. Point Break shares some common ground with Cameron’s work, and even he draws some parallels between the endings of this movie and Terminator 2. Regardless, I will take no credit away from Bigelow who gave us this excellent pure adrenalin rush of a movie which has not been replicated since. I think it goes without saying that I recommend this movie with great passion.