Blue Steel (1989)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow


On the surface, Blue Steel is just another cop movie.  We start with a scene of our hero, Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis), gun drawn in what looks to be a dangerous moment on the job.  It turns out to be an elaborate training exercise, the type that we’re led to think every cop must pass through but which might only exist on this level in movies.  Megan is a new recruit, and she’s not quite ready for the job at hand, based on how she fails this test.  Still, she’s an idealistic cop, and boom, we know what type of movie we’re in for.

Following a female cop in a male-dominated world, both in life and in the context of this movie, Blue Steel plays a lot with gender politics.  Megan’s story arc, and the challenges she faces, exist mainly because she’s a woman.  Early on she empties her clip into a would be armed robber, but when his gun can’t be found at the scene, the police captain suspends her, questioning her thought process and the possible use of unnecessary force.

We identify strongly with Megan, not just because we know she acted in the right, but because she’s such an idealist, and every force in the movie seems to be working against her, with the exception of her best friend.  Megan’s father literally beats her mother, and her father is openly disdainful of her profession.  Megan is introduced to a nice young man who can’t believe that a woman could be a cop.  And then Megan is suspended by the force for doing her job.  She wouldn’t face these problems if she were a man.

Soon Megan is wooed by Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver), a trader on Wall Street who, we know but Megan doesn’t, was at the scene of the shootout which got Megan suspended by the police.  This is where the movie shifts into a new gear.  Eugene is symbolic.  He’s the representation of masculinity and in particular, masculine frustrations, that type of man that only wants to hold women back.  He wants to keep the world as it is, suitable for white men like him.  But maybe he doesn’t know this, actually I’d guess he doesn’t.  Eugene is essentially Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, but even Bateman had more self-awareness.

Eugene wasn’t always a murderous psychopath.  During Megan’s shootout in act 1, Eugene, a customer in the convenience store, steals the gun the robber lost, and he becomes infatuated with it.  He’s similarly infatuated with Megan’s use of the gun, and that’s where the imagery of the gun as a phallic object becomes more clear.

A lot of movies fetishize gun violence, and this one does as well.  Every bullet hit is filmed in slow motion, with flashy blood squibs like in a Tarantino movie.  These moments are often intensely backlit and staged to look like even more of a spectacle than they already are.  But once you get a grasp on what the movie is trying to say, these moments start to feel a little more nuanced.  This isn’t just another glorification of gun violence, it’s a message on our own infatuation with guns, whether in real life or simply in movies.

Eugene seduces Megan, but when you think the story means to push back the big reveal, that he’s the serial killer everyone is looking for, it doesn’t.  Midway through the movie, Eugene reveals himself to be a madman, something we already knew, but which Megan didn’t.  This plot point is fascinating because it reinforces the idea that the real challenge Megan faces isn’t this obvious villain, but the institutions which suppress her.  The cops don’t believe her because there’s no evidence, and they think it’s absurd that this guy she’s dating, who seems like a nice guy, could do something like this.

Eugene becomes more of a horror movie character, even something like The Terminator as he gets bigger and more dangerous, to an almost cartoonish level.  My first reaction to this was to find it silly, but I think it’s actually quite important that he becomes such a ridiculously cartoonish villain.  The point is that he gets so big, so obviously terrible, and yet Megan still can’t convince anyone he’s their guy.  The men around her are blind, and she’s the only one who has any idea what’s going on.

So it’s a story about Megan and the challenges she faces as a woman in this testosterone-driven world.  The movie’s credit sequence occurs over a bunch of close ups of guns, filmed like a Burger King commercial.  Eugene, and many movie goers, is obsessed with guns just like our culture, I think on some level (most people would agree), is obsessed with male genitalia.  It’s a joke, of course, that when someone drives a big truck or owns a large gun, or unnecessarily spends more money on military defense, that they’re compensating for something.

Bigelow is addressing what it’s like to be a woman in such a world and to have to deal with roadblocks that most men don’t have to deal with.  She’s also suggesting a reason these institutions are the way they are, that they’re driven by fear.  It’s like the Republican senators who insist a woman shouldn’t have the right to choose.  It seems like this message should feel a little outdated, a little obvious, considering this movie was released almost 30 years ago, and yet it feels incredibly current.

Okay, I don’t know what else to say about this situation, but it’s what the movie is about.  There is plenty of subtext you might not anticipate in a movie like this.  Blue Steel seems like it might be some kind of B movie, maybe just another cop action movie, but it subverts most of your expectations.  That being said, I didn’t particularly enjoy this movie, at least not at first.  It’s much more interesting to analyze and study, but because of the surface-level similarities to other movies I don’t particularly enjoy, I didn’t enjoy this one.  But if you like those types of 80s action movies, I think you’ll love this one.

I’m out of ideas.  It’s a good movie, very well made, but it’s a case of a message taking the form of something digestible, like jamming all your kale into a smoothie with too much sugar and fruit.  This is an important movie, in some ways, but it’s made to look unimportant, as if Bigelow could sneak some social commentary into your life, and hopefully that’s what happened.  Okay, yeah maybe that’s it.  This is a movie about real issues covered in the syntax of a movie with a target audience of people who might not normally seek out such a message.  This isn’t some kind of arthouse, low budget movie.  It’s a popcorn flick with a message.

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