With Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, Detroit, opening wide this week, I am revisiting this project that I sadly left unfinished several years earlier. This installment is largely unedited from the first time it appeared on my site with only a few words changed. Subsequent installments, to be out each Wednesday, may be more significantly edited.
The Film: Blue Steel
The Year: 1989
The Plot: Jaime Lee Curtis is brand new on the beat cop Megan Turner. On patrol early in her career, she happens to be in the right place, right time to interrupt a grocery store robbery and ends up shooting and killing the assailant, a young Tom Sizemore.
The prospective robber’s gun clatters to the floor and is snagged by Ron Silver’s Eugene Hunt, a stock broker, in the TRADING PLACES tradition, who seems to be infatuated with violence and experiencing some amount of auditory hallucinations. Hunt goes on a killing spree with the gun, carving Turner’s name into each bullet, while simultaneously romancing her. Meanwhile, Turner is in a sort of legal limbo following the shooting, leaving her under investigation and supervision by Clancy Brown’s Detective Nick Mann.
The Issues: Women in the force- This whole project was inspired by the podcast Bonnie and Maude and their episode on POINT BREAK and HURT LOCKER, two other Bigelow films and during that episode, guest Aviv Rubenstein references BLUE STEEL. While talking about it, he states that it is a movie wherein several of the characters seem to doubt a woman can be an effective cop but no one ever says it. And he’s right.
And it is a pretty excellent choice because in the “real world” it is rare that anyone directly airs his or her prejudices blatantly in the face of the person they are prejudiced against. So while the movie is shot through with side eyes and near to very much condescension, it is all microaggressions. Turner can never confront anyone about how they are treating her because, on the surface, no one is saying, “Hey, girls can’t be police.”
It is also interesting to see how people not in the force react to her as a woman officer of the law. In particular, there is a guy who is introduced to by a friend at a backyard barbecue. It’s clear that this is a setup and the hope is these two will hit it off. And they kind of do at first. However, the moment Turner’s occupation is revealed the guy cannot get away from the party quick enough.
Proper Police Behavior- The movie also is somewhat about questions of excessive force, but that is more an accident of when I am watching than anything else. As you are probably aware, here in the United States we are in the midst of several cases of officers killing or injuring people under questionable circumstances. Thus far, those officers have been largely supported by unions, local officials, and their departments at large. In contrast, Turner is nearly a pariah. She shot and killed an armed man in front of several witnesses that he was terrorizing and, yes, the gun then disappears, but there’s no doubt her force was justified. Zero. And yet, it feels like the department is very skeptical of her even before Hunt helps things along by leaving her name on bullets that end up killing people.
It’s hard to believe that 80’s New York City would be harder on cops in regards to “clean” shootings than today, but that is certainly the juxtaposition this film presents.
Related to New York today vs. New York then, there is a subtle moment just before the robbery that lets the viewer know that broken window policing was very much not a thing in 80’s New York.
Mental Illness- Hunt is clearly ill. He hears voices, is obsessed with killing, and sees Turner as a kindred spirit who also achieves a state of “light” by ending life. And performance-wise, Silver is a great template for overacting without completely erasing any semblance of the human from his character. All that being said, it does perpetuate the myth that the mentally ill are largely violent and dangerous. It is a trope, to be certain, and one that does not actually bother me because I recognize that Hunt is not reflective of the mentally ill at large. Other, however, might look at him and other characters like him and generalize to all those with mental disorders.
The Opinion: Let’s get this out of the way at the top. I really like this movie.
I am not entirely sure it is good, though, so please permit me to puzzle that out with you right here on the page.
On the positive side, Bigelow has a great eye right out of the gate. Not as stylish as she would get, but by no means the stripped down Bigelow of late, BLUE STEEL nonetheless reveals she is a competent craftsman right away. Everything has a sense of sheen to it and she makes excellent use of reflective surfaces like windows, mirrors, and rain soaked streets. There is a sort of cracked funhouse mirror sensation that permeates the film, reflecting both Hunt’s view of the world and the relationship between he and Turner. It is actually an interesting choice. Many (most?) crazed killer films cede their narratives to the killer, leaving the protagonist in the background. STEEL, on the other hand, keeps Turner front and center while keeping Hunt in our metaphorical field of view by letting his “vision” warp the world of the film itself.
I praised Silver again so I will not belabor that point beyond saying that future actors cast to play maniacal killers could do worse than emulate his performance over, say, Hopkins’ uber competent Lecter or Nicholson’s totally unhinged Torrance.
Curtis as Turner is excellent as well. It’s funny, as long as she has been around, I do not have a great sense of whether or not Curtis is a “good” actor. I assume she is; no one, especially a woman, gets roles in Hollywood for almost four decades straight without being able to bring something to the table. That said, I have a hard time ticking off performances by her that impressed me. This movie makes me think I need to go back and watch some of the movies with her I liked with a little more aware eye. Here, she balances several different facets and keeps those plates spinning throughout (to mix metaphors) without visible strain. In particular, the way she plays Turner as both wilting—look at the state of her uniform at graduation versus the end of the film and notice it is not just the condition but how she wears it—and hardening throughout the film. I also was impressed by her ability to be sexual without being objectified and without succumbing to the current “strong, sexy woman” cliché we tend to see a lot of now.
The supporting players do not fare as well, it must be noted. Whatever talent Bigelow demonstrates with the visuals and her leads, she cannot quite seem to widen the iris enough here to let others pop as well. Only Louise Fletcher and Philip Bosco as Turner’s parents get anything really strong to work with and there’s a way to see that as mostly a product of the work it allows Curtis to do in relation to them.
That said, it is still fun to see super young Clancy Brown, Richard Jenkins (looking the same as today, eerily so), and Kevin Dunn do their best with some thin roles. The recently deceased Elizabeth Pena as Turner’s doomed best friend Tracy, unfortunately, has the thinnest of the thin and it shows.
The Conclusion: For a director who has mostly become known as the woman director who explores masculinity, it is interesting to see her train her camera on a woman making a go of things in a traditionally masculine world. For people who wish her to be a bit more explicitly feminist in her work, this is unlikely to fully satisfy. By other measures, however, I would certainly recommend it. Strong lead performances, great looking, and wonderfully tense. A bit of a forgotten gem, I’d say.