Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kathryn Bigelow goes commercial/personal in BLUE STEEL

(note: NO relation to Derek Zoolander's big new look that everybody's talking about)


Why did Kathryn Bigelow make this movie, Blue Steel, ostensibly a cat-and-mouse style 'policier' (that last term I took right from the back of the VHS cassette box) about a rookie cop being pursued by a second-tier Patrick Bateman late 80's stockbroker psycho?  I ask this rhetorically, as it could have been any number of reasons: the chance to work with Jamie Lee Curtis, or even Ron Silver or Clancy Brown; maybe she was hired by producers Edward Pressman and Oliver Stone after her sleeper Near Dark to come up with something "gritty" and "urban".  Maybe she just loves guns and slow-motion (hey, Peckinpah fan after all).



I have another theory, which based around absolutely nothing really, that this is actually a very personal movie for her.  If not in the scope of the purely speculative- that, say, she's playing out the problems of her marriage at the time to James Cameron with a tale of "her" vs "him" with him eventually resembling a Terminator- then in the form of femininity.  Bigelow has said that it shouldn't be such an obstacle for women to make it into Hollywood and that she doesn't think about it much.  Yet this is one of the few times, maybe the only one as I can figure looking at her resume, that she has a female as the protagonist, and fighting against an aggressive, over-the-top figure of masculine manipulation.  Maybe it's just a statement on the masculinity of all men in a crime genre, the way that she made a statement on the quest for blood (that it's a disease) in Near Dark.

Symbolic of... seeds I guess?


But whatever it is, it helps that Blue Steel feels like more than a commercial-for-hire project... at least, once one digs a little deeper.  It also could equally resemble one of those movies one comes across late night on Cinemax and one kind of dozes off to, until it goes bit by bit nuttier in the last act.  Bigelow certainly knows how to make the shots count; guns and bullets, right from the get-go in the credits, take on another connotation with close-ups and that slick, sometimes-fog-drenched lighting and composition that's a lift off of Tony Scott and Adrien Lyne.  But at the same time that the digging-deeper into the scales of gender roles in cops-and-criminals gets explored, and how mind-games can cripple one into (almost) submission ala The Hitcher, Blue Steel has other problems that kind of make a split in comparing Kathryn Bigelow the director and Kathryn Bigelow the (co)writer.

It's hard here to distinguish in the film what might be just a comment on a cliche or just a silly cliche, and the latter kind of prevails more often than not.  At one point officer Megan Turner (Curtis) does the hand-over-your-badge-and-gun.  At another point we see Eugene Hunt, psychopathically working out, talking to himself and trying to tell the voices in his head to back off but they won't oh Jebuz.  At another point (or more than one) we get the irate higher-up above Megan, a chief or sergeant or whatever, and it's all one tone all the way (same for Eugene's lawyer, played mercifully by Richard Jenkins, who is all one-note indignant law-man).  I want to chalk up some of this to being commentary on the genre, but there's only so much time that it feels like that; one such scene that is fresh and inventive is the resolving of a sub-plot with Megan and her parents as her father is an abusive tool who hits her, and she puts the bastard in cuffs and is driving him off to the station, but stops and relents, though with a "but if you do it again..."

Yeah, they actually have one of *these* scenes.  


Maybe another part of the problem is the lack of initial chemistry between the two leads.  On their own Curtis and Silver are actually pretty good in their characters- even with Silver who has a very cool-school demeanor as a big-time (but not Bateman big time) broker- but when they're put together early on I just don't see it, or how Megan doesn't even think for a nano-second that this guy with the soulless eyes and job on wall street would preclude him from being a suspect just by the stroke of luck of a) not seeing him at the shooting-crime-scene at the supermarket (what we call the 'turning point' in screenwriting) and b) how she wouldn't guess after a little while.  Luckily that is dispensed with and the story can go on with the cat-and-mouse thing, but I could never see it; only later when Eugene is acting vindictive in a crucial scene where Megan has to play it cool by threat to her family does it get interesting.  And by the climax, it's... just silly, but drenched in Peckinpah-violence influence so that helps a bit.

You know it's the 80's when Clancy Brown has a perm.  


Blue Steel is a curious find in late 1980's urban-grit police drama, where the subversion of the genre is detectable but is at odds with the more conventional aspects of the script.  The direction makes things exciting and usually engaging, if only on a superficial level.  And the acting tries to always keep up with the intensity of the page and camera.  It rests in a strange nether-region of the work of an artist where it's got a little crap, a little that is just dated and stupid (such as a stupid coupling late in the film that seems a little too random despite what else is going on in the scene), and with violence that, ultimately, does have a purpose.  It's an enjoyable, respectable mixed bag.

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