Woman with a gun: Blue Steel (Kathryn Bigelow, 1989)

bluesteel

Though Blue Steel‘s coolly elegant style and thematic focus on androgyny and obsession place it firmly within Kathryn Bigelow’s oeuvre, it’s such a weak film that I would swear it only got made in the aftermath of The Silence of the Lambs – if it hadn’t been released two years earlier. Though it’s also about an inexperienced female law enforcement officer (in this case, a member of the NYPD) and her relationship with a psychopath, it’s in no way comparable in quality. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Megan Turner, a cop whose first night on patrol goes terribly wrong. After interrupting an armed robbery, without backup, she shoots the perpetrator in self-defense, only for Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) to steal the dead man’s weapon from the crime scene. He’s developed an obsession with guns, and with Megan, that sends him on a killing spree.

Megan starts the movie looking incompetent (why not wait for backup or immediately retrieve the weapon?), but her oversights are partly attributable to the patchiness of Bigelow and Eric Red’s script. The plot is so disconnected that it manages to become abstract, scenes and images strung together without making any logical sense. Few of the character motivations in this movie make sense either – if Megan behaved in an intelligent fashion, she would be an oddity.

The film plays around with ideas of gender in ways that are, again, not coherent, but are interesting. An early shot establishes that Megan wears a white, lacy bra beneath her uniform, but it’s the outer layer that counts. On her first walk home from graduation, a couple of women react to her as though she’s an attractive man, and she jokingly responds as though she is. There’s a tension between her off-duty attire and the uniform (and how people treat her depending on what she’s wearing) throughout the film. By the final scenes, she’s even dressed in a (stolen) male police officer’s uniform. Part of the reason Hunt is drawn to her is the power her gun signifies, but if she weren’t a woman, he would not have fixated on her. Other men, whether her father or potential dates, feel threatened by or resentful about her job. At least fellow officer Nick Mann (Clancy Brown) likes Megan on-duty and off, but he will pay a high price for Megan’s heroics. Worse, Megan can’t help her mother (Louise Fletcher) or her best friend (Elizabeth Peña); Mann is her only partial consolation. (Could the naming choices in this film be any more obvious?)

Blue Steel’s cast do their best with the material. Jamie Lee Curtis, one of Hollywood’s most simultaneously masculine and feminine actors, is the perfect choice for Megan. Ron Silver chews the scenery as Hunt, while Kevin Dunn shows why he’s still getting cast as the senior cop who yells at his subordinates, 25 years later. Brown is awesome as always. Fletcher and Peña’s roles are disappointingly undeveloped. Meanwhile, Tom Sizemore gets low billing as the would be-thief, but would earn a larger role in Point Break. (And is there another connection in James Cameron’s casting of Curtis in True Lies?)

With a stronger plot, Blue Steel could have better explored its themes. However, by its end, it doesn’t want to be anything more than an action flick. The final shootout looks good (Megan reloading her gun one-handed is a striking moment), but the film misses a chance to get some characterisation in amongst the slo-mo. Hunt’s ruminations on death and killing are the most notable features of his mania, but the final scenes neither prove nor refute his beliefs. He and Megan just shoot at each other. The film is not only a fairly negative take on a woman who tries to function in a man’s world, but it’s not a good film, either.

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