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Film review: Strange Days

The basic premise of "Strange Days" rips off the 1983 sci-fi thriller "Brainstorm."

In "Brainstorm," scientists Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher create a headset that can record point-of-view thoughts, dreams, memories and actions, which can then be played back for other people, so they can "feel" the same experiences. It's like the ultimate virtual-reality — sort of actual-reality.

For "Strange Days," co-writer/co-producer James Cameron (the "Terminator" films, "Aliens") and director Kathryn Bigelow ("Point Break," "Blue Steel") have stolen the device and upped the ante.

Here, the setting is futuristic Los Angeles on New Year's Eve 1999 — just hours before the year 2000 chimes in. The digital-recording headset has been around awhile — but it's illegal and can only be purchased on the black market. And like a drug, it's addicting.

While "Brainstorm" explored the thrill-ride, sexual and deadly possibilities of such an invention, "Strange Days" gives us a serial-killer's point of view.

Someone is donning the headset to record his victims as he commits rape and murder. If that isn't sick enough, he also puts a headset on each victim, so she will experience the horrifying sensations of rape and murder with even greater intensity.

It's the ultimate "blackjack," or "snuff film," and petty criminal/

ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes, of "Schindler's List" and "Quiz Show"), who deals "clips" to "wireheads," doesn't like snuff films — especially when he is implicated in the murders.

Meanwhile, a militant rap star named Jeriko One (Glenn Plum-mer) has been murdered, execution-style, causing racial tensions in Los Angeles to become far more strained than usual. And somehow the two events are linked.

So, Lenny hits the streets to try and find the answers to his myriad questions, as he is beat up, framed for murder and subjected to repeated viewings of these graphic rape-murders.

Unfortunately, the audience is also subjected to the same unpleasantness, and after awhile "Strange Days" becomes merely a predictable parade of senses-assaulting indignities with a surprisingly conventional, by-the-numbers story.

Plotwise, there isn't much, except that Lenny has an unrestrained obsession with his former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis, at her most spacey and unappealing), which causes him to be repeatedly beaten up by the bodyguards of her current boyfriend, high-rolling record-producer Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). Lenny also recruits his best friends, Max (Tom Size-more), a down-on-his-luck private eye, and Mace (Angela Bas-sett), a security guard/limo driver who is surprisingly adept at kung fu, to help him solve the mystery.

One odd element is that strong, got-it-together Mace is in love with Lenny-the-loser, and though this is obvious to the audience very early on, Lenny doesn't tip to it until the final reel.

This is just one of many plot points that are rather muddled, another being Lenny's fascination with Faith, which is never believable — not for a single moment do we believe he could be so hung up on this woman.

The real mystery here is how a movie that is 21/2 hours long could be so jumbled in its narrative and have so many underdeveloped characters.

Aside from Lewis, the cast is acceptable, but Bassett, who also gave a knockout performance (and was Oscar-nominated) as Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It," is the only performer who stands out. She brings a richness, a compassion, a strength of character to the role that raises it several levels above the movie itself.

As with her earlier films, director Bigelow concentrates on visual imagery (which in this case owes a great deal to "Blade Runner") at the expense of story development. Some of the images are initially rather dazzling, but the film gradually becomes redundant and boring as it beats the audience over the head with its technical proficiency.

The message — that voyeurism in our entertainment-rabid society is making us numb — is so heavy-handed, and the film itself is so numbing, that any serious intent is bound to be lost on young people who embrace the film.

Most appalling, however, is the film's concentration on violence, particularly the rape scenes. If Bigelow's aim is to prove she can be as disgusting in her cinematic treatment of women as are so many male directors, she has achieved her goal.

And why does excessive nudity in a movie like "Showgirls" warrant an NC-17 rating, while more seriously disturbing material, such as graphic rape scenes and other disgusting forms of violence, continue to be rated R?

"Strange Days" is rated R for violence, rape, sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity.