Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (1990)

3. Blue Steel

“Near Dark” didn't make much of dint at the box office but clearly Kathryn Bigelow enjoyed her collaboration with Eric Red. The two would team together again with “Blue Steel.” The film would similarly approach its story with both a gritty and grounded but deeply stylish hand. Luck still wasn't on the director's side. “Blue Steel's” release would be delayed when its production company, Vestron Pictures, went out of business. When the film finally came to theater's screen, it also received generally good reviews without hooking audiences. As a motion picture, “Blue Steel” is a fascinating and frustrating follow-up to Bigelow's first big triumph.

Megan Turner has wanted to be a cop her whole life. After working her way through the training program, she has finally earned her badge. Only days after officially becoming a police officer, she spots an armed robbery. Acting swiftly, she shoots the robber dead. When the man's gun disappears, Turner's police chief believes she acted rashly and suspends her. During the chaos of the crime scene, a man named Eugene grabbed the gun. He becomes obsessed with Megan and the gun, using it to kill random people on the street. At the same time, he manages to romance Megan... Until she realizes he's a psychopath. Then his affections turn violent.

“Blue Steel” concerns a woman trying to succeed in a profession dominated by men. She acts swiftly and accordingly during the grocery store shoot-out. Despite this, she is scrutinized far beyond what you'd expect for a male officer. This mirrors the opening scene, where she draws her weapon quickly during a training maneuver, which she also gets criticized for. It's not just the other cops that give her shit. When a friend – who is a married homemaker with kids – sets her up on a blind date, the guy is clearly intimated by Megan's status as a cop. Her ambitions puts her at odds with the world and every step of the way will be a struggle.

It's no mistake that the opening scene, the training course, features a man attacking a woman. “Blue Steel” is especially concerned with the point where violence and gender meets. The robber in the grocery store, who is needlessly angry and aggressive, is male. The obsessive psychopath who targets Turner is male. Though he kills several people, he saves his most violent assassinations for other women. Such as Megan's friend or a prostitute, whose blood he literally bathes in. Most pointedly, Megan's father is abusive towards her mother. The violence is never provoked. These men attack for no justifiable reason. Megan, in contrast, only discharges her weapons to protect others or herself. While the men shake off their violent acts easily, Megan's conscious is weighed down by these attacks. The point isn't subtle but it's worth making.

In particular, Bigelow focuses on the totemic power of the gun. At the crime scene, Eugene watches the pistol fly through the air before grabbing it. Immediately, he obsesses over the gun. He poses with the gun in front of a mirror. He carves Megan's name into the bullets. His nightly murders are contrasted with his day job as a wall street broker. On the floor, he screams in impotent macho bluster. When he wields the gun, when he grabs the most potent of all phallic symbols, he acts as if he's regained his lost masculinity. “Blue Steel” mining the fetishic qualities of firearms is interesting. What do we make of Megan's own gun use, considering there's at least one montage devoted to her at the firing range? It's hard to say but all these thoughts are floating around inside “Blue Steel's” head.

Even as late as 1990, after successful comedy roles in “Trading Places” and “A Fish Called Wanda,” Jamie Lee Curtis was still attempting to get out of the shadow of her eighties horror roles. “Blue Steel” actually borders the horror genre, considering the role a deranged killer plays in the story. Yet Curtis digs into the psychological depth of the character. At the beginning of the film, Curtis is almost flippant. She jokes around at graduation. A partner asks her why she wants to be a cop. In a grim bit of foreshadowing, Turner says she "likes to shoot people." As the story goes on, Curtis shows an increasingly anxious side. By the final scene, she's completely broken. Curtis shows her range, running through most every emotion possible.

If Curtis' performance is nuanced, Ron Silver's role as Eugene the psycho is totally unhinged. In his introductory scene, while grabbing the gun, Silver's face contorts in wild ways. While washing himself with the blood of a hooker, Silver stares madly. My favorite scene has Eugene hearing the voice of God while exercising. This is the moment when you realize how deeply, totally insane this guy is. As the film advances, Silver piles on more twitches and sweaty, wide-eyed glares. Silver goes way over the top but it's a performance well suited to "Blue Steel," a movie of high emotion and crazed intensity.

Ron Silver is so obviously crazy that it's hard to believe that Curtis' character would ever date this guy. It's surprising that “Blue Steel” makes the pseudo-romance work as well as it does. The initial scenes between Silver and Curtis, where he holds a cab for her and takes her out to dinner, are almost charming. Disappointingly, this is not the only romance in the movie. Clancy Brown's character, Nick Mann, is introduced telling a sexist joke. (His last name can't be a mistake either.) As the story develops, Nick gains more respect for Turner. I was really hoping the two wouldn't fall into bed later. They do, the romance coming about less because it's natural and more because the main character just has to have a love interest. Brown is fine in the part, by the way.

In “Near Dark,” Kathryn Bigelow packed each use of violence with as much intensity as possible. It wasn't clean or painless violence. In “Blue Steel,” Bigelow once again makes the violence hit as hard as possible. When Curtis shoots the robber, she fires six times, sending him backwards through a window. Each one of Silver's murders feature weeping wounds and spurting blood. One of the most graphic moments in the film features a massive blast of gore splattering against a glass door. In the last act, every gunshot throws people back, crimson spiraling from the wounds regardless of their locations. Even if Bigelow pushes the squibs as far as possible, each attack scene impacts the audience.

“Near Dark” was awash in deep shadows, with fog drenched points of light. Bigelow dials back the gothic imagery considerably for “Blue Steel.” Yet the movie still has an incredibly moody visual design. The opening credits play over extreme close-ups of Turner assembling her uniform.  As per the title, the night scenes are often accompanied by blue lighting. Like the cobalt of the gun, the film is shot through an icy perspective. “Blue Steel” is a frequently gorgeous movie but Bigelow's direction is sometimes a little overdone. She utilizes some cheesy slow motion in a few scenes.

Another issue with “Blue Steel” is how repetitive the script's structure is. After Silver shows Curits how fucking crazy he is, she attempts to pin the murders on him. His sleazy attorney, played by a brief appearance from Richard Jenkins, always gets the cop to back off. Eugene then turns around and attacks Megan. He appears in her parents' apartment, making everyone as uncomfortable as possible. The film then repeats this structure, of Silver attacking and fleeing just to attack again, until the end. The situations vary – a chase scene, a tense stand-off in the park, an attempted sexual assault in her apartment – but the idea remains the same.

Having said that, the film's final shoot-out works well. The fight starts in the subway, crawls out into the streets, and concludes in a tight alleyway. There's a good callback to an earlier line about a cop needing to have eyes in the back of their heads. Both Curits and Silver take multiple bullets to their bodies, each getting more bloodied and bruised. A hot dog cart plays an unexpected role, that might've been funny if the film hadn't drummed up such a frenzied pace. In a moment Bigelow would returned in her future films, “Blue Steel” concludes not with the heroine being triumphant. Instead, she's broken by her experience, exhausted and left questioning her decisions.

In 1990, “Blue Steel” got some decent reviews but received little attention from movie goers. The film has never garnered quite enough attention to become a cult item, despite Curtis' devoted fan base. It's a deeply flawed film, with some strange writing decisions. Yet when it works, it works really well. As a Kathryn Bigelow film, “Blue Steel” represents an important creative development, showing the director's interests in how men and women react to violent scenarios. And, hey, crazy eyes Ron Silver goes a long way too. [Grade: B]

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