Combining the sci-fi tech of Strange Days, Minority Report, and Brainstorm, along with a bunch of old Bogart/Bacall 50’s detective film noir movies, this uneven film has you wishing star Hugh Jackman would sprout his famous Adamantium claws and go to town!
Written, directed, and co-produced by first-timer Lisa Joy of HBO’s Westworld, this movie takes place in Miami, Florida either in the future or maybe an alternate universe where the waters have risen so much, the city is now partially underwater, making it like Venice, Italy. People get around in boats, water taxis, or suspended trains. Yet, in this future (?), the city resembles the 50’s, with old-fashioned nightclubs, microphones, lighting, clothing, and buildings. Wait, what? In the middle of this are ex-military soldiers Nick Bannister (Jackman) and his partner, Watts (Thandie Newton) who run an odd business.
They operate a machine that can unlock your memories, either as a 3D holographic image or a motion picture! Strange that the image can be seen as a first-person image (realistic) or like a God-like, third-person hologram watching it happen (totally unrealistic). Weird, right? Anyway, one day a ravishing red-haired bombshell named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) comes in and needs her memories probed to find her house keys. Yeah. Sure. Instantly smitten by her and her beautiful. . . ah, memories. . . he falls for her, and starts a relationship, much to Watts’ disapproval. But quicker than you can say, “The Big Sleep“, she suddenly disappears and Nick goes on a hunt to find her. Cue his narration like an old Bogart movie.
While on the prowl looking for Mae, Nick finds clues that maybe she wasn’t the beautiful, loving, tender, torch singer she was to him. Was she a drug addict? Did she steal from the notorious New Orleans drug lord, Saint Joe (Daniel Wu)? Was she somehow connected to the evil land baron, Walter Sylvan (Bret Cullen)? And what about super-nasty Cyrus Booth (Cliff Curtis), that crooked cop that is always hanging around? How is he figuring in on all of this? The more Nick delves into other’s memories and Mae’s past, the more the puzzle comes together. But. . . what about the “war” everyone is constantly talking about? What up with that? What war? With whom? Who won? Where’d it happened? Sorry, no answers, only gaping plot holes!
As much as I wanted to like this movie, I just couldn’t. This is Lisa Joy’s debut as a director & theatrical screenwriter, although she has written for TV’s Burn Notice, Pushing Daisies, and HBO’s Westword. Yes, there was some nice world-building in this with (I’m guessing) post-apocalyptical Florida and (I’m still guessing) global warming that raised the water level. I dunno. It’s never explained. Joy has written for the brilliant sci-fi Westword cable show, which gives us plenty of exposition, so why not here? Her inaugural direction is both sloppy & choppy at times and then quite good otherwise.
But that story! Ugh! Mashing up a 50’s detective noir with a sci-fi film has merit, but this one is dull, boring, uncentered, moves at a snail’s pace, and loses your interest after an hour. Plus, the sci-fi elements of the movie don’t add up within the context of the film. At least you have Jackman & Ferguson, the Bogie & Bacall of this listless tale, and they DO manage to sneak in some nice moments. Newton is just along for the ride, unfortunately, as she kicks such wonderful ass in Westworld. Again, in movies such as these, the other cast members fair much better. Cliff Curtis as the scarred cop is terrific and Daniel Wu adds a nice spin to his character.
**Now showing in theaters AND streaming on HBOMax
Strange Days (1995)
If you saw 1983’s Brainstorm, you already know the technology this film sets up: a gizmo you wear on your head records everything you see, feel, and hear. Then anyone can play that recording back and see/feel/hear that person’s emotions for themselves. In this movie, that concept goes one step further.
“Have you ever been jacked-in? Have you ever wire-tripped?” These are the questions asked by Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a fancy-dressed, low-life, ex-cop scum living in 1999 L.A. that deals, not in drugs or weapons, but in illegal SQUID discs. Stolen from the Feds, these machines record certain “activities” and then people sell these mini-DVD’s so you can experience first-hand things like: sex acts, brutal robberies, a teenager showering, and more. Lenny, along with his strung-out partner, Tick (Richard Edson) are the wholesale disc suppliers in the city. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing as the clock ticks down to the New Year of 2000 and riots are breaking out.
But this movie also has a who-done-it crime story woven into it. Y’see, Lenny pines after his ex-girlfriend and singer, Faith (Juliette Lewis) who now works for sinister nightclub owner Philo Gant (Michael Wincott), and this guy is up to no good. Lenny soon receives a mystery disc, plays it, and finds out to his horror it’s the brutal rape & murder of his hooker friend, Iris (Brigitte Bako). With the help of bad-ass limo drive & bodyguard Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), and long-haired P.I. Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore), they try and figure out who killed Iris and recorded it.
Following up on a lead, Lenny & Mace find another disc, one left by Iris who recorded something the night rapper superstar Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) was killed. Turns out she recorded two racist white officers (William Fichtner & Vincent D’Onofrio) executing Jeriko in cold blood during a routine traffic stop along with all the witnesses! Armed with evidence that could explode on the 6 o’clock news, Lenny and Mace have to outmaneuver the two killer cops after them, while getting to the bottom of who was behind the ghastly murder of Iris.
This movie has quite the history: James Cameron (yes, THAT James Cameron) came up with the story and wrote the screenplay along with Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York). Cameron gave it to his then-wife, Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), who proceeded to make this movie filled with humiliating, degrading, sexist, and disturbing depictions of women being raped, tortured, and beaten. But, since it was a female director at the helm, criticism was sparse. Bigelow stated, “I wanted to treat ‘the system’ fairly, because if it’s the enemy, then we’re the enemy, since by not changing it, we’re reproducing it”.
The POV scenes (where the viewer watches the SQUID disc) are well shot with a hand-held Panavision camera and, in the opening robbery scene, looks like one amazing take. But the rape/murder scenes makes you wanna skip ahead. Yuck!! Nevertheless, this being the fifth film Bigelow directed in her early career, you can see her deft hand behind the camera that would later garner her a Best Director Oscar in 2008. She also had a stellar cast to work with, starting with Ralph Fiennes who gives an intense performance and gets beaten up–alot!! Angela Bassett, thank God, is the only woman in this movie to show some fire, muscle, and backbone.
Tom Sizemore is always a weird/fun combo to have, but life-long screen villain Michael Wincott (with his gravelly voice) looks like he stepped off the set of Interview with the Vampire. Fichtner & D’Onofrio are sufficiently creepy, but I don’t know who hired Juliette Lewis for this role. Okay, she looks good half-naked, but her acting in this movie was laughably bad. Yikes! I’ve seen her other movies (Cape Fear, From Dusk Until Dawn), and she was quite good, but here she gave line readings that were just plain embarrassing.