On Blue Steel

Blue Steel could be considered a “suspense thriller,” featuring Jaime Lee Curtis, and Louise Flechter (Cruel Intentions, Kai/Vedek Winn Adami on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). According to Jump Cut‘s article, “Yuppie devil: villainy in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel“:

Film critic Janet Maslin must call forth the devil himself to explain the curious appeal of the yuppie to late-80s filmgoers. The yuppie devil at the end of the 80s, though, is more a crafty Mephistopheles than a fearsome Lucifer. A sly character with a keen sense for bargain and an eye for economy, this devil wears his gold Rolex in fashionable display and makes his pacts in public. No more magical, smoke-filled entrances, the devil at the end of the 80s confidently takes his seat at the head of the yuppie bargaining table. The devil’s public appearance as a yuppie points up the heartless greed of that decade, and so Mephistopheles’ gold watch indicates not only his proper place at the yuppie’s table, but also the culpability of those seated across from him (with their own Rolexes, Mont Blanc pens, and Ferragamos). Maslin’s article focuses on two films, Internal Affairs (dir. Mike Figgis, U.S., 1990) and Bad Influence (dir. Curtis Hanson, U.S., 1990), to demonstrate this new trend in late-80s Hollywood cinema, where the formerly successful yuppie was conflated with the newly fashionable serial killer to create the hybrid character of the psychotic, villainous yuppie devil.

In this essay, I want to reexamine a third film that Maslin mentions briefly, Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (U.S., 1990). Bigelow’s film is unusual since it simultaneously sustains and critiques the new trope of the yuppie devil. Furthermore, the film generated puzzled responses that allow us to see the ambivalent attitudes late-80s spectators held towards this new kind of yuppie villain. For example, even Maslin, in pointing out how yuppie devil films reveal the dangerous effects of “a decade of relative conscience-free complacency,” nonetheless mirrors this complacency by implicitly accepting the merging of yuppie and psycho tropes:

“When [Blue Steel] assumes that [its villain] automatically has the makings of a psychotic killer, it doesn’t imagine itself to be making any kind of leap.”[2]

The self-evident “obviousness” of Blue Steel’s yuppie devil makes the film worth revisiting since its ideological obviousness hides more complex cultural negotiations in the 1980s between economic power and filmic evil. Finally, since Blue Steel features a female heroine who must face the male yuppie devil, the film further questions the obviousness of assumed gender roles in late-80s imaginings of yuppie lifestyles. I will start by offering a reading of Blue Steel which argues that its yuppie devil was hastily dismissed, but is constructed in a significant visual relationship with that film’s heroine. I will then discuss the rapid transformation between 1984-1989 in U.S. popular culture representations of the yuppie from a success story to a symbol of evil.

As Maslin suggested, yuppie devil films like Blue Steel rely on a shared understanding of what the yuppie would signify to a late-80s audience. In that decade, the yuppie was a new figure in the popular imagination who reiterated an U.S. myth of economic success. The term was coined in 1983 and first popularized in 1984, which publications like Newsweek labeled “The Year of the Yuppie.” The word “yuppie,” which comes from mixing the acronym for “young urban professional” with “hippie” or “preppy,”[3] was initially used as a demographic label to describe Baby Boomers

“aged 29 to 35 who live in metropolitan areas, work in professional or managerial occupations, and have an income of at least $30,000 if they live alone.”[4]

Soon, though, “yuppie” became a pejorative description of a lifestyle, and yuppies were identified with a culture of wealth, conspicuous consumption, and conservative politics. Driving a BMW, working on Wall Street, exercising constantly, living in an expensively renovated loft in a gentrified neighborhood, or purchasing imported tarragon vinaigrette from an upscale gourmet store made one a yuppie. A backlash against the expensive, self-absorbed frivolity of the yuppie’s designer lifestyle quickly set in. By the end of the 1980s, the valueless yuppie lifestyle was a ready signifier for the selfish evil born of capitalism, and villains in films like Blue Steel could rely on this signification to scare audiences.

Blue Steel stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Megan Turner, a newly graduated recruit of New York City’s Police Academy who leads an otherwise quiet and lonely life. One night Turner is witness to a holdup in a supermarket. After a tense standoff with the thug (Tom Sizemore), she blasts him through the storefront window with six bullets from her service revolver. The thug’s .44 Magnum falls in front of yuppie commodities trader Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver), who secretly takes it and flees the scene. With the gun missing and no witness able to corroborate her story, Turner is suspended for shooting an unarmed man. Soon, though, her name is found carved on bullets recovered from a series of murdered bodies. Little does she suspect that the man she has begun to date, Eugene Hunt, is responsible for these random killings. As Hunt and Turner become romantically involved, Turner begins working with tough-guy homicide detective Nick Mann (Clancy Brown) in order to solve the case with her name on it. But, even once Megan discovers what Eugene has done, she is constrained from stopping him by her department’s disbelief, the yuppie’s crack lawyer, and fear for her family’s safety. After Eugene murders her best friend Tracy (Elizabeth Peña) and rapes Turner, Turner is forced to violate the law in order to exact revenge on the now-psychotic Hunt.

The problem of reading Blue Steel lies in its ending, which is especially cruel towards Megan Turner’s character. She is disowned by her department; she witnesses her best friend’s murder and her lover’s attempted murder; she is raped, shot, held under guard; and worst of all she herself is finally driven to commit murder to stop Hunt. To accept the ending’s violent pleasures, it seems we would need to see Blue Steel as a masochistic, misogynistic film. Or, to rescue the film from such a negative reading, we would need to dismiss the ending as succumbing to thriller genre conventions. Yet both of these readings rely on a vision of the yuppie Hunt as already damaged from the outset. If this were the case, then Turner’s heroic task would from the beginning also be impossible. So while dismissing Hunt as a merely psychotic yuppie devil may seem to rescue the film for feminist audiences (just look at what male evil a female cop faces these days), such dismissals actually make it harder to accept the narrative burden placed on Turner’s character. As a rookie policewoman, it becomes her sole responsibility to rise above the evil that men do, for which the merely psycho male has no moral culpability. When she fails to do so, the heroine becomes as evil as the villain. Focusing solely on Turner forces audiences to ask whether she acted justly in the end in committing murder, but this is an unfair question; Blue Steel punishes and puts a shell-shocked Turner in her place, but the narrative delineates that place as one created by her relationship with Hunt. It is imperative, then, to reexamine Blue Steel’s yuppie devil, for ironically only in saving him can we rescue Megan Turner.

preview

This idea that Megan Turner must be the “sole responsibility to rise above the evil that men do” wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, as during the film, when Turner arrests her father, Frank, upon discovering that he was hitting her mother, again, her mother, notably, pleads with her not to get involved. Then, in a scene not long after, her parents are seen quite happy together when welcoming a suitor, Eugene Hunt no less, at their home.

I personally felt that Hunt as a villain came off awfully over-the-top, to the point where I may not have been able to take him seriously. However, the cop Megan Turner is certainly the most relateable character, as according to Philly‘s article, “‘Blue Steel’: Story Of A Woman Cop Fighting To Save Her Life And Her Job“:

One given of the film business is that every time a genre is dead, an imaginative director comes along to resurrect it. When horror movies had become spoofs rather than spookfests, John Carpenter gave us Halloween. When science fiction had been eclipsed by science fact, George Lucas made Star Wars. When monsters-from-outer-space films had all the menace of the purple people-eater, Ridley Scott delivered Alien.

So it shouldn’t be surprising, now that the police thriller has devolved into action comedy (see Lethal Weapon 2), that a director would reinvent the genre as Kathryn Bigelow has with Blue Steel, a cop movie with magnum force.

Blue Steel startles. Not so much in terms of its plot, which is standard in that a rookie cop gets framed by a predatory psycho. Nor is it startling for its stylized cinematography, the probing close-ups illuminated by shafts of blue light, not unusual for a director more concerned with visuals than with dialogue.

Bigelow’s film startles for the simplest of reasons. It stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Megan Turner, the most forceful flatfoot since Dirty Harry. Megan also happens to be the most tormented screen heroine since Curtis’ character in Halloween. The combination of her power and powerlessness creates an almost unendurable tension.

On her first day out, Megan blasts away an armed robber in self-defense. Unfortunately a witness, Eugene (Ron Silver), makes off with the criminal’s gun, so it looks to Megan’s bosses as if she is a trigger-happy hysteric. She’s suspended. Eugene starts romancing and framing Megan for random murders he commits with the purloined pistol.

Because it has a woman cop who reconciles fantasies of omnipotence with the nightmares of her profession, Blue Steel rethinks the police movie, rethinks the gun as a symbol of power. A guy with a gun is not unusual. A gal with a gun is. Blue Steel makes explicit the phallic symbolism of a pistol. In Bigelow’s thriller, the gun does not masculinize Megan Turner. Instead, Megan Turner feminizes the weapon. Most women-in-jeopardy movies feature guys-with- guns to save them. This woman in jeopardy has to save herself.

Bigelow is not the first filmmaker to take the convention of woman-as- victim and twist it into woman-as-vigilante. Her husband, director James Cameron, did this most effectively in Aliens with Sigourney Weaver’s Lt. Ripley, which exploded the cliches of weak womanhood at the same time it exploited the cliches of protective mothers.

Bigelow is original in that she inlays Megan’s physical terror with her psychological terror. Given that Megan’s male employers tyrannize her with their sexist attitudes, Megan has to avenge herself against Eugene, not only to save her life, but more important, to save her job. This is a movie with double-barrel impact for professional women.

Admittedly, Bigelow’s stress on Blue Steel’s moody atmosphere makes her film feel overdirected when, in fact, the movie is more probably underwritten. The bonus of Bigelow’s intense close-ups and unsettling point-of-view camera work is that she obliges viewers – male as well as female – to identify with Megan.

Because Blue Steel utilizes the contrast between her physical strength and her psychological fragility, Jamie Lee Curtis has never been better than in this movie. She is well-served by co-star Clancy Brown, who plays Nick Mann, a police detective whose initial contempt for a woman cop turns to admiration.

Usually the most resourceful of actors, Silver here looks as if he’s been taking lessons at the Kirk Douglas School of Jaw-Clenching. In Bigelow’s embryonic script, Silver’s Eugene is the least-developed. He does, however, have the film’s best line: “Death is the greatest kick of all. That’s why they save it for last.”

Unfortunately, the death Bigelow saves for last is so protracted that it would seem to incorporate every anti-climax from every Brian De Palma thriller ever made. Despite this, Blue Steel has the intensity of white heat.

The gender dynamics of the film certainly sparked my interest, given we only have three female characters, while the other six are all male.

According to The Los Angeles Times review:

Director Kathryn Bigelow is a nifty visual stylist; she proved that with “Near Dark,” her fearless vampire biker movie. Unfortunately, style needs a little substance to keep it from careening around looking empty, and the story of “Blue Steel” (citywide) is lofty, implausible twaddle that sinks whatever ideas Bigelow hoped to investigate.

To follow where she would lead us–to a world of high gloss and low smarts, of naked, wounded villains who can evade entire squadrons of police, and lines like “Death is the greatest kick of all; that’s why they save it for last”–we first have to surrender every shred of common sense.

Bigelow and co-screenwriter Eric Red (“The Hitcher”) seem to harbor disdain for the well-made story. Or even the half-cocked one. Consider the incident that sparks everything: On her first night of duty, rookie cop Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) spots trouble in a Manhattan market. Creeping around through the back, she finds a gunman with his .44 magnum at the forehead of a young cashier and several more shoppers on their stomachs on the floor. After giving him proper warning and as he draws on her, the rookie blasts this menace straight back through a plate-glass window.

His gun makes a nice triple arc and lands in front of another prone shopper, Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver), who steals it. For overreacting and because no gun can be found, Curtis is suspended. Police investigators say the cashier was so dazed he didn’t know whether it was a knife or a gun between his eyes that entire time.

Whoa now. This is our premise? There were at least two other witnesses not counting Eugene, quiveringly busy with his own agenda. You suspend a shiny new policewoman without questioning other eyewitnesses? So the robber didn’t have a gun, he had a knife. Where was that ? Surely, if he was holding up the place with a pointed finger, someone would have noticed.

It’s foolish to pin all your succeeding action on a cheesy premise like this, and on far worse stuff later. The audience must agree to become stupid in the service of seductive visuals and that’s not much fun. Far more satisfying is to combine style and character with nicely understated wit; a contemporary thriller like “Bad Influence” proves that it can be done.

Sadly, “Blue Steel” (rated R) only gets more and more foolish. Taking the dead man’s .44 magnum, Eugene scratches Megan’s name onto its shell casings and begins blowing away the population of New York at random, more or less in homage to her. He stands naked at the edge of the glittering city, rubbing his body with clothes drenched in the blood of his latest victim.

At the same time, Eugene deliberately meets and begins to court Megan, who’s been allowed back on the force to try to lure out the killer. At first she’s intrigued; she’s straight blue-collar, he’s a drivingly successful commodities broker. Then, in his Upper East Side apartment, as Eugene begins kissing her, he asks to see her gun, begging her to take it out, to hold it in two hands and to understand that he and she are two halves of a whole, that Megan “would do what I do if you knew yourself better.”

The appalled Megan realizes what she’s got here, but virtually no other law-enforcement official in greater New York will listen to her, except one homicide detective (Clancy Brown) whose badge should read Love Interest. And now the movie plunges into urban chase overdrive, with wet, patent-leather nighttime streets, arcs of shattered glass and handguns about the size of Red October.

Bigelow is working over a couple of obvious but not-uninteresting ideas here: She’s reversing the usual cop movie so that the sometimes corrupt police become the guardians of order and the privileged people they protect are the animals. Secondly, there’s Henry Higgins’ exasperated question, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Megan Turner can be. She’s got the hat, the badge, the trendy black brogans and, in the movie’s most smirking analogy, she’s got the gun. Then as the movie progresses, Curtis’ angular face is photographed to look more and more tomboy-androgynous.

But serving up these ideas is about as much investigation as Bigelow gives them; they don’t become clarified or deeper or even terribly meaningful. And in the time since “Near Dark,” her style has inflated preposterously. Lushly photographed though it is by Amir Mokri, “Blue Steel” clangs and reverberates, its Brad Fiedel score raining cues like boulders. And its dialogue is elephantine-pretentious.

Curtis somehow survives all this with a strong, honest and winning performance while Silver, so complex and believable in “Enemies, a Love Story,” was encouraged to take a chain saw to the scenery here and obliged.

Quite a lot has been made of the fact that, with “Blue Steel,” a woman has invaded the men’s club of the bloody action thriller. Well, it’s always nice to see another woman on the job, but pared down to its basics, “Blue Steel” is about a upscale psycho who gets slack-jawed when he sees a woman who can kill with the same cool he’d like to have. Why should we be grateful that anyone wants to make that?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s