Blue Steel

At the beginning of Blue Steel, Jamie Lee Curtis, as a rookie policewoman in New York City, gets to be something few male cops are ever allowed to be (at least in the movies): nervous. A greasy, gargantuan thug is holding up a convenience store, and Curtis, who has crept in the back entrance, slowly cat- walks down the aisle, in anticipation of surprising the guy. Her face is fro-zen with fear, and we can see why.

In a moment, she’s going to have to do all the things movie cops always do — plant her legs, point her gun, and bark out some stone-cold command on the order of ”Police officer! Drop it!!” And that’s not as easy as it appears. The crook, catching sight of her, isn’t scared. He takes one good look at this trembling protector in blue, this…lady cop, and cackles with amusement. In a fluorescent-lit urban showdown, might doesn’t necessarily make right. It’s just two people pointing weapons at each other — a crazy-existential battle of wills. For a moment or two, the notion of what it means to be a police officer is wrenched from banality.

Blue Steel begins excitingly, as a cunning, up-to-the-minute thriller in which the hook is the heroine’s display of human vulnerability in the face of danger. There’s no special point being made about female officers. Curtis’ character, Megan Turner, simply isn’t encumbered by false machismo; the movie uses her to suggest the fears confronting all police officers. Unfortunately, director Kathryn Bigelow can’t quite finish what she started. After a promising opening, Blue Steel turns into a revisionist psycho-thriller, a patchwork genre movie that jams its parts together in a semi-original way but can’t disguise the fact that the parts are standard issue.

In her previous film, the shimmering vampire Western Near Dark (1987), Bigelow showed a flair for wild-style characters and fluidly erotic action poetry. The movie was a sleekly decadent comic strip, a gorgeous example of style for style’s sake. Blue Steel doesn’t have the same hallucinatory extravagance; it’s a far more straightforward movie. And though I’m glad Bigelow has elected not to coast along on the shallow virtuosity of image-making, the script she and her collaborator, Eric Red, have come up with is a real Swiss-cheese affair.

When Turner is unjustly suspended from the force, she ends up letting herself be wooed by an unlikely stranger — a gnomish stockbroker with pleading eyes (Ron Silver) who turns out to be a lunatic. We see his antics in private: talking to mirrors, smearing blood on his chest, murmuring ecstatically about the glory of his righteousness. In other words, your basic messianic nut case.

Sweaty and bearded, Silver makes a convincingly nerdy psychopath — he’s like the sickie Martin Scorsese played in the back of the cab in Taxi Driver. The fact that he’s a Wall Street gold trader by day is meant to carry a feminist charge (the madness festering within our masculine-commercial culture, and all that). Yet for all of Silver’s anguished huffing and puffing, he’s really just there to stalk our heroine.

And stalk he does! He shows up on Megan’s doorstep, in her apartment, at her parents’ house; he makes Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction look like a wallflower. On top of that, Megan knows he’s deadly — but the police won’t even listen to her! The implausibilities pile up, until you wish Megan would just knock the guy off and be done with it. Blue Steel turns into yet another movie about Jamie Lee Curtis bravely fighting off a bogeyman. It’s Halloween 1990.

Still, Bigelow’s talent cuts through in flashes. The movie, though slow and portentous, has a fever-dream clarity, with characters gliding through the Manhattan streets, prisoners of their anxious demons. And the action scenes are stylized and hard-hitting; if nothing else, they prove that Bigelow knows her way around a gun barrel as well as any male director. Blue Steel lacks sustained storytelling craftsmanship, and it never approaches the saturnine intensity of the film it sometimes recalls, Michael Mann’s Manhunter (the greatest thriller of the past decade). But it makes you eager to see what Bigelow could do with a good script. B-

Blue Steel
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