Picks and Pans Review: Strange Days

updated 10/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis

Los Angeles, a few days shy of the millennium, has become a gang-infested, racially explosive battle zone where the police are deployed in armored tanks. In the midst of this chaos, Fiennes peddles a few small, squalid dreams. He's the illegal dealer of a virtual-reality service that was developed by the FBI but has now slipped into the black market. You pop a tiny disc into the hardware, plop what looks like a tarnished bronze cap down on your head, push a button and then record your own experience or—this is what Fiennes's clients want—play back someone else's experience, everything from a girl rubbing herself down in the shower to a heist that ends with the robber plunging from a roof.

Despite its futuristic premise, Strange Days turns out to be the umpteenth variation on the L.A. detective-noir tradition. But it's a good variation, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Blue Steel) with the right proportion of sentiment and seediness—and an intriguing number of twists and suspects. The very tangled mystery of Strange Days involves, in no particular order, a virtual-reality "snuff" trip recorded by a color-blind killer; the murder of a black rapper; the extralegal activities of two especially brutal L.A. cops; and the emotional and physical perils of Fiennes, who's on the verge of being played for a sap by some very tough cynics. As the romantic antihero, he just can't seem to get over Lewis, as a rock star who makes Courtney Love look like Deanna Durbin. Only in L.A. noir is a femme fatale named Faith.

The English-born Fiennes, whose American accent is better here than in Quiz Show, seems right at home. He's feckless, rumpled and rather passive, with most of his emotional energy kept in reserve for the wrap-up. At that point, you can almost see tiny clouds of despair roiling in his uncommonly eloquent eyes. Bassett, as a high-security limo driver who carries a torch for Fiennes, is also good, and distinctively steely. Lewis doesn't do much more than twist her licorice lips and scream at people, but that's all the part calls for. (R)

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