If Jamie Lee Curtis is the star of Blue Steel, the gun is her unofficial costar. Scan the poster for another face and you’ll eventually find Ron Silver’s deranged Wall Street broker-cum-serial killer in a tiny box off to the side, less than half the size of Curtis’s drawn weapon. In this image he’s the devil on her shoulder, which makes the gun the angel by default. The gun is good, someone or other once said, and Blue Steel is a believer.
By the time the film begins, even Curtis defers to the gun, as the opening credits play over what I can only describe as a striptease seduction scene highlighting the weapon’s contours and curves. The camera first slides smoothly down the barrel and along the textured grip before peeking softly down into the bullet chambers. The sequence is downright naughty, gun porn all the way, and slyly warns the audience that what they’re watching is a step sideways from the boilerplate cop dramatics. Blue Steel has something else entirely on its warped mind.
BLUE STEEL is not Kathryn Bigelow’s best film. Frankly, it’s kind of a mess. The story, such as it is, concerns Megan (Curtis), a rookie cop disgraced on her very first night on the job by a shooting gone wrong. She confronts and finally kills an armed robber at a convenience store (Tom Sizemore), but the perp’s gun disappears in the chaos, winding up in the hands of a bystander named Eugene (Silver), an oozy stock trader so overwhelmed by the experience of becoming a burglary victim that it drives him insane. He fixates on the gun and on Megan, ultimately committing a series of random murders using bullets he’s etched with her name. While Megan and her partner (Clancy Brown) piece together the murders, Eugene weasels his way into Megan’s life, threatening her family and her friends before finally confronting her.
The screenplay is by The Hitcher’s Eric Red, and like that film’s John Ryder, Eugene displays an almost supernatural knack for his new hobby, and a talent for turning the tables on Megan every time she has him caught. But The Hitcher worked partly because of its isolated location that left its protagonist with no help and with nowhere to go. In Blue Steel, the heroes are cops in the biggest city in the world, and the script has to go through increasingly frantic gyrations to keep its villain from simply being locked away. The result is a film constructed of uncommonly dumb logic and far-fetched decisions. Watch it with care or risk straining your eyes from rolling them too hard.
But Red’s script has a secret agenda, and in Kathryn Bigelow’s hands, Blue Steel becomes something more than the action movie claptrap it seems destined to be. The project was Bigelow’s coming out party for Hollywood after her skuzzy, wooly vampire movie Near Dark (also written by Red) turned heads, and her hunger is unmistakable; a young filmmaker’s eagerness to transform the medium drips from every frame. Bigelow pinpoints the psychological subtext inherent in the script, finds her bin marked ‘subtext,’ burns it, and then with nowhere left to put the stuff, throws it right up there in the text. When she’s done, Blue Steel quits being a cop thriller and instead becomes a Freudian nightmare and the gun a phallic avatar in the war between the powered and the powerless.
Take the character of Megan. Bigelow cannily casts Jamie Lee Curtis whose physical androgyny makes the presence (or not) of her firearm a defining trait. With her gun, Megan can traffic in the macho male cop circles and stand up to Eugene, who has tragically confused his stolen gun with his masculinity. Both Eugene and Megan need their guns to avoid becoming the victim—Megan has watched her mother wilt in an abusive marriage and violates a family code against cops to empower herself, while Eugene feels powerless during the stickup and only gets his strength back when he’s armed.
Megan is stripped of her gun (and, therefore, her power) when she’s removed from the case, and she spends the rest of the film attempting to get back to where she was. She doesn’t seek violence, not consciously, but without her job, her gun, Megan is out of balance. For Eugene, however, balance is never again an option. Somehow, his murders seem only a prelude to the grossest misuse of his stolen power, that of a gunpoint rape that becomes the logical extreme of his other sexually-charged crimes. The movie explicitly suggests that Eugene can’t find arousal without the gun, without pointing it and making a decision to snuff out a life. For Eugene, murder is a sexual release. Folks, sometimes a gun is just a gun, but not today.
If Bigelow has made one thing clear in her action films, it’s the idea that, despite the great myth to the contrary, there’s no such thing as meaningless cinema violence. There’s a communicated message behind every bullet that the audience receives. It’s one thing to depict two men in a room firing guns at one another, but audiences, especially American audiences, have historically layered their own meanings into that action, specifically associating violent success with masculinity. Ask Americans to name the most masculine icon in our history and you won’t have to wait long before hearing the name John Wayne, he who may have fired more bullets on screen for more audience members in the history of the form. Bigelow directed Blue Steel in 1990, during the last days of a decade partly defined by thickly-muscled demigods carrying impossibly large guns. Blue Steel is her answer to that, her first attempt to flip the script on the boy’s club and pop their pectoral balloons.
Bigelow’s ideas, though, bring out the weird and turn out to be more than the film can handle. Silver, especially, mugs like crazy for the camera and as he becomes further unhinged, he just loses his damned fool mind. Bigelow highlights his performance with a visual landscape that’s at turns erotic and frightening, using strategic slow motion and smoke machines to craft a steamy, dreamlike atmosphere. Paired with Red’s disjointed narrative, Bigelow’s style transforms Blue Steel into a fairly surreal, and singular, experience. There’s literally nothing out there in mainstream movies quite like this one. Is it action? A thriller? Watching it again recently, I finally settled on the term “Eroticop.” One gets the feeling that a gunfight or a sex scene could break out at any moment, and neither would be particularly pleasant.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
6. Blue Steel
Bonus: The Loveless