When we decided to spend the month focusing our attentions on “women who kick ass”, I knew immediately what movie I wanted to write about. It’s a personal favorite of mine, and has been since I first saw it in 1995. But as discussion continued, I thought of more heroines that deserved attention (Leeloo in The Fifth Element, Lola in Run, Lola, Run, Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day). I was beginning to talk myself out of writing about one of my favorite movies. But I rewatched the movie, and while I find it problematic as a recommendation (I’ll get to that in a moment), I discovered a snippet of trivia that made it the pitch-perfect choice as a movie that features a kick-ass female protagonist.
The movie is directed by Kathryn Bigelow. You would know her for her memorable action films (including 1991’s Point Break). She did an impressive independent vampire film in 1987 called Near Dark. But in 2008, she did a movie called The Hurt Locker and won an Oscar for Best Direction for her efforts. This Oscar win was a milestone in that it made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to ever win this particular award. Actually, she is the only woman in the history of the Academy Awards (almost 90 years!) to take home a statuette for Best Director.
How’s that for women who kick ass?
Strange Days was released in 1995. I had never seen anything like it.
I still haven’t.
(Consider this your warning that this article will contain SPOILERS!)
The film takes place on the final day of 1999 as Los Angeles prepares for the possibility that “the millennium bug” or “Y2K” is going to ignite the end of the world by the end of the night. The hot drug on the streets is “Playback”, a cyber-drug that allows the user to get high on another person’s experiences with a retro-fitted CD Discman, a machine called a Super-conducting Quantum Interference Device (or SQUID). The SQUID allows a wearer to record experiences through their own eyes. The tapes of those experiences can be played back by another user. Do you want to have sex with a beautiful blonde? Do you want to feel the adrenalin rush of robbing a bank? Do you want to know what it feels like to die? If you want it, you can probably find it on “Playback.”
The movie stars Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero. Lenny used to be a Los Angeles police officer. Now, he’s a street hustler, dealing in “Playback” tapes. I don’t think Ralph Fiennes has ever played a character as pathetic as Lenny Nero. Unkempt and sweaty, Lenny is addicted to his own product, specifically to tapes from his personal collection, recordings of his time with Faith (played by Juliette Lewis), an up-and-coming rock singer that has left him, a direct result of Nero’s increasing paranoia.
The film is co-written by James Cameron, so I don’t think I have to tell you that the film continually winds back in on itself as the plot gets progressively more and more complicated. And it does get complicated. What starts out as Lenny receiving a secret “playback” clip that shows a woman being raped and murdered turns into Lenny receiving a “playback” clip that shows Los Angeles police executing a well-known African-American hip hop artist and revolutionary. This, naturally, turns into Lenny needing constant protection as he is hunted down by the two offending officers (played by Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner).
Protection for Lenny comes in the form of Mace. She’s a limo driver, and Lenny’s best friend and bodyguard. Played by Angela Bassett, she is, for me, the heart and soul of this film.
We don’t get a lot of back story on Mace, but we see in flashbacks that her ex-husband was a loser and that Lenny was the police officer that read stories to her child while the other officers arrested him. She is protective of Lenny and very obviously loves him.
Bassett’s performance is very nuanced. Is Mace protecting Lenny because she has to, or because she needs to? Is protecting Lenny her job, or her mission? Consider this exchange:
LENNY: Have you ever been in love with someone who didn’t return that love?
MACE: Yeah, Lenny, I have.
LENNY: It didn’t stop you from loving them, right? Or being able to understand them or forgive them?
MACE: I guess.
I think there’s a little bit of both. Suffice it to say that, by the end of this film, Mace will have saved Lenny in every way imaginable. She fights bad guys for him. She almost drowns for him. She reminds him that friendship is “more than one person constantly doing favors for another.” She helps him love himself.
This entire movie is worth the watch for Angela Bassett alone.
With that said, since I am recommending that this film get a second look so highly, I feel obligated to mention that the film is problematic in more than one regard. For one thing, the film is incredibly dated. Since we all know that the world didn’t end on December 3, 1999, the movie loses some of its impact. But that isn’t nearly as problematic as the film’s treatment of women. Despite a female director, despite how effectively drawn and nuanced the character of Mace is, the rest of the film has a pretty uncomfortable outlook on women. There are two other (admittedly, strong) female characters in this film. The first, Iris, is brutally murdered and raped before the film is halfway finished, and the second, Faith (played by Juliette Lewis) spends a good portion of the film nude. It should be said, though, that Juliette Lewis’s performance in this film is very strong. And there are two sequences of Faith in concert, where all the vocals and musicianship are recreated by Lewis herself. If I have a crush on Juliette Lewis (and I do), it’s because of this performance in this film.
The film itself is also very frenetic, though. It’s almost a sadistic onslaught to your senses. The music is loud. The violence is brutal. The shots are edited in quick succession. And the long point-of-view sequences that depict “playback” are jumpy and may require dramamine. In direct defense of the latter, though, the camera equipment used to film these sequences was invented for use in this film and required more than a year’s worth of work before filming could even begin. That’s one more thing about this film that has been criminally overlooked.
Strange Days is nothing if it isn’t flawed. But there is a great irony in a movie that deals so effectively with memory being so difficult to forget. If you’ve seen this movie, let’s discuss it. If you haven’t, I promise you’ll want to discuss it if you do.