Kathryn Bigelow has defied expectations throughout her unorthodox career: the co-director of arthouse biker movie The Loveless (1981) also helmed the most expensive (for its time) film from a female director, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002); the director of Point Break (1991), a preposterously macho piece of entertainment in which Keanu Reeves hunts down bank-robbing surfers, also directed Zero Dark Thirty (2012), in which an Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain hunts down Osama bin Laden. If there is a Rosetta Stone for Bigelow’s unpredictable filmography, it would be Blue Steel (1990); at the very least, it’s a film that marks the convergence of many of Bigelow’s preoccupations. Here, her fetishistic leanings (as in The Loveless) brush against her knack for pulp fiction (as in Point Break); horror tropes are hybridised with another genre (as in 1987’s Near Dark); the film grapples with toxic strains of machismo (as in Point Break and 2008’s The Hurt Locker), but focuses on a tough female protagonist chafing against institutionalised misogyny (as per Zero Dark Thirty), with the urban jungle its nightmarish backdrop (as in 1995’s Strange Days); and the film is threaded with the sort of righteous anger most recently vented in Detroit (2017).
Blue Steel stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Megan Turner, a rookie New York cop who thwarts a supermarket robbery. The gun used in the attempted crime falls into the hands of Wall Street trader and nascent serial killer Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver), who embarks on a killing spree whilst romancing Megan. While Bigelow’s films of the past 15 years have striven for gritty authenticity, Blue Steel’s plotting, as this synopsis suggests, is somewhat more overwrought. Critic Kenneth Turan praised the film but noted that “its logic being the logic of nightmare, not that of reality, it will not score high on anyone’s probability meter.”1
With its high-profile lead, bigger budget and behind-the-scenes muscle – the film was produced by Oliver Stone and Edward R Pressman – Blue Steel was Bigelow’s induction into the Hollywood mainstream, though New York location shooting and studio Vestron’s flailing fortunes meant production was far from smooth sailing. Working once more with her Near Dark co-scribe Eric Red, she conceived of the film as a new slant on a familiar genre. The director recounts:
It all began with the idea of doing a woman action film. Not only has no woman ever done an action thriller, no woman has ever been at the centre of one as the central character … From that takeoff – deciding to put a woman in the centre – we worked out what the ramifications would be.2
Bigelow’s claim that no woman had ever headlined an action film is rather sweeping – ignoring, for example, Blaxpoitation films like Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973), Asian titles like Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita, 1973) and former husband James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) – but it is true that such casting was not commonplace in the late 1980s, making Blue Steel a novel genre entry. The film predated several others that helped popularise resilient female action leads – including Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) and Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) – but tends to get lost in that conversation, despite its arguably more complex layering of women’s experiences into an action-movie framework. Nonetheless, while its director overstated Blue Steel’s progression of genre, she downplayed its progression of gender, observing “I subscribe to feminism emotionally and I sympathise with the struggles for equity. But I think there’s a point where the ideology is dogmatic. So I’m not saying Blue Steel is a feminist tract per se. But there’s a political conscience behind it.”3
Another source of Blue Steel’s novelty as an action film is the slasher tropes threaded throughout, a dimension accentuated by its casting of Curtis. She was one of the definitive ‘Scream Queens’ thanks to her starring roles in Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), Prom Night (Paul Lynch, 1980) and Terror Train (Roger Spottiswoode, 1980), among others, and her casting intertextually evokes those films – particularly Halloween, as noted by Roger Ebert at the time of Blue Steel’s release4 – and their well-worn tropes. Carol J Clover catalogues these tropes in her book Men, Women and Chain Saws: a male killer with arrested or abnormal sexual development; a phallic weapon; a slew of victims, often female; and a Final Girl, typically with tomboyish or androgynous traits, who “finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued … or to kill him herself,”5 appropriating the killer’s own phallic tools in the process to inflict his “castration, literal or symbolic.”6 These tropes all surface in Bigelow’s film, and though the average slasher-killer’s weapon tends to be pre-technological, the .44 Magnum wielded by Hunt – Dirty Harry’s weapon of choice – aligns with the film’s urban crime milieu and is a befitting phallic weapon for a murderous yuppie.
While action and slasher film are intertwined in Blue Steel, action is where Bigelow’s heart lies. She regards the action film as “pure cinema, where the medium departs from theatre,”7 and her professed directorial heroes are action filmmakers, including Cameron, Walter Hill, George Miller and Akira Kurosawa, whose classic Stray Dog (1949) – about a rookie cop who loses his gun and must hunt a criminal who starts killing with it – bears more than a passing resemblance to Blue Steel. Yet there is a strong whiff of Bigelow’s painterly origins in the film, too: prior to studying film, she had studied fine art and been part of the 1970s Manhattan art scene. Bigelow and cinematographer Amir Mokri’s compositions are at times too painterly, too aesthetic, and are lingered on a smidgen too long by editor Lee Percy; the director’s knack for the kinetic would only fully materialise on-screen the following year in Point Break.
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Blue Steel (1990 United States 102 min)
Prod. Co: Lightning Pictures, Precision Films, Mack-Taylor Productions, Vestron Pictures Prod: Edward R. Pressman, Oliver Stone Dir: Kathryn Bigelow Scr: Kathryn Bigelow, Eric Red Phot: Amir Mokri Ed: Lee Percy Prod. Des: Toby Corbett Mus: Brad Fiedel
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Silver, Clancy Brown, Elizabeth Pena, Louise Fletcher, Philip Bosco, Kevin Dunn, Richard Jenkins
- Kenneth Turan, “Genre Bender,” GQ, October 1989, p. 162. ↩
- Kathryn Bigelow, quoted in Ana Maria Bahiana, “Kathryn Bigelow,” Cinema Papers, no. 86, January 1992, p. 32. ↩
- Gerald Peary, “Kathryn Bigelow’s Disturbing Vision,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 30 March 1990. ↩
- Roger Ebert, “Review: Blue Steel,” RogerEbert.com, 16 March 1990, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/blue-steel-1990 ↩
- Carol J Clover, Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 35. ↩
- ibid., p. 49. ↩
- Bigelow, quoted in Turan, op. cit., p. 162. ↩