It should come as no surprise that I'm a fan of Kathryn Bigelow, and I'm always interested in seeing her films when I get a chance. Ever since I first saw The Hurt Locker I have tried to collect her movies. When I heard about her film Blue Steel through my action cinema class I quickly became interested in it. One of my favorite female directors made a movie about a tough female cop? How could I resist? Before long, interest turned into a desire to see this film, and desire became an obsession. Next thing I knew I had to find this movie. I combed every potential channel I could find. I checked countless video stores (some more than once) as well as Netflix and HBO on Demand to know avail. It seemed like this film was impossible to find.
Over the last few months my desire grew increasingly to the point where it was starting to drive me insane. Every time I wandered into a video store all I could think about was finding a copy of Blue Steel. I was not even sure if it was going to be worth it but something kept compelling me to search for this particular film no matter how futile it proved. Then finally this morning I had a new idea; check out the media commons library on campus (which happens to have a huge selection of films). Turns out they did in fact have it all this time (on both DVD and video cassette) and I was able to check it out. Of course I'll have to return it, but I finally managed to fulfill my desire to see this early film from the director of The Hurt Locker. So after spending half a year relentlessly combing every shelf of any store that had DVDs for this one film that seemed impossible, was it worth it? Oh yes, it was.
Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a tough woman who has just graduated to becoming a recognized officer of the New York Police Department. She is a woman who has proven that she can hold her own in a male-dominated profession (this being a major theme throughout). Unfortunately, things are cut short on her first night as a cop when she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time: witnessing a convenience store robbery in progress. Naturally she tries to interfere and has to shoot the perpetrator. However, one of the hostages, a strange fellow by the name of Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) steels the perpetrator's gun and escapes the crime scene, leaving Turner to be accused of police brutality and suspended.
Hunt turns out to be a deranged lunatic who also becomes obsessed with Turner, going as far as to carve her name into bullets and fire on random pedestrians using the gun from the crime scene. Turner then finds herself in a brief romantic relationship with Hunt, only to end up in a violent cat and mouse chase as he attempts to manipulate her, framing her as a Dirty Harry-esque rogue cop who doesn't play by the rules. Now it is up to Turner to figure out how to expose Hunt for the monster he is and bring an end to his reign of terror.
I should probably point out that Blue Steel isn't exactly a typical action movie, though it certainly draws inspiration from some. There is definitely some inspiration from Dirty Harry (especially evident in the relationship between Turner and Hunt) and Blade Runner (mainly in terms of atmosphere), but in many ways this is more of an art film. While the story itself is not too hard to follow the movie as a whole is very subjective, at times even surreal, and one that tries to make the viewer think about and question what they are seeing.
This approach allows it to be a very psychologically-driven experience rather than something driven by a simple adrenaline rush (I suspect this is probably the reason why many consider it one of Bigelow's weaker films; a lot of them probably went in expecting a more straight forward action thriller). As a result, the film is more slow-paced than one would normally expect. It takes its time to allow the viewer access to the minds of its two central characters and to explore how both are simultaneously brought together and pulled apart over the course of the film.
The theme of challenging established gender conventions is a prominent one throughout, most notably in Megan's characterization. This is even reflected in her wardrobe, which constantly places her in attire more often seen on men, most notably the full blue police uniform (complete with peaked cap) and the presence of shoulder holsters. She is also a very strong character, with attention constantly being paid to her tough attitude and her wit (especially towards the end of the film, when she is locked in a metaphorical Chess game with Eugene).
Hunt also works as a disturbing antagonist. His weird deranged nature serves as an early precursor to the "adrenaline junkie danger seekers" that would become common in many of Bigelow's later films (Bodhi in Point Break and Sgt. First Class William James in The Hurt Locker arguably being the two best-known examples). However, unlike those later figures or Dirty Harry's Scorpio (from whom he obviously draws inspiration) Hunt is actually able to pass for an ordinary man. This adds a few extra layers of unease on the few occasions when he refrains from showing his true colours, since he is very clever in setting up Turner in such ways so that most of the other officers don't believe her.
Watching it today is especially horrifying since there are actually films still being made in which this kind of character would be the hero. He did display a vibe reminiscent of so-called love stories such as The Age of Adaline and Fifty Shades of Gray. His deterioration of character is also conveyed visually through a combination of body language, atmosphere, and costuming (he goes from wearing a fancy business suit to looking like a homeless man). By emphasizing these aspects of his character right from the beginning, instead of leaving it as a twist for the end, we are able to get into the twisted mind of a psychopath, an interesting if unsettling experience. At the same time, however, there is also an enigmatic quality to the whole thing, as the film never spells anything out but leaves the viewer to imagine what kind of thought process go through his head.
I don't know why this film is so hard to find, but it shouldn't be. I don't care if it's Criterion, Kino, Alliance, Mongrel, or some obscure indie distribution firm nobody has heard of. Somebody please get this film released on DVD again! It is a brilliant piece of work from Kathryn Bigelow and one I find myself tempted to rank as being among her best (right up there with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty). Blue Steel is arguably one of her most interesting projects, with its strange and subjective approach to what in the hands of any other director might have been a conventional action thriller. If you are a fan of her work, or even if you are just looking for some unusual police films, this is a must-see.