Saturday, July 6, 2024

JLC Neo-Noir Watch: Blue Steel (1990)

Watched:  07/06/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Kathryn Bigelow

Criterion Channel is showcasing Neo-Noir films this month, and I absolutely remember this coming out and not understanding what it was at the time, and then never hearing from anyone who ever saw it.

But here at The Signal Watch, JLC is one of our patron saints, and I was curious.

The movie is a curious mix of genres - certainly an homme fatale noir, but 100% a thriller.  And sets itself in the New York of the late 1980's where finance-dudes were of interest to audiences, as were blue-collar types.

Jamie Lee Curtis plays a young woman literally right out of the police academy who, on day 1, stumbles onto a hold-up occurring at a grocery, where she's forced to shoot the gunman.  Which she does in 1980's style, emptying her gun and sending the guy reeling through the front window.

Unfortunately for her, the gun the guy had goes missing, and no witnesses say they saw a gun.  And there's no tape?  In 1990 in New York?  But ok.  

She's on administrative leave when she meets a commodities exchange fellow who woos her.

But, uh-oh, he was at the scene of the crime, took the gun, and is now murdering people with the gun after carving her full name into the casings, that he leaves behind after killing innocent people.

One good cop (Clancy Brown) believes her while everyone else just wants to fire her or make her go away, but Eugene (Ron Silver) ups the ante, and eventually she figures it out just pre-coitus.  And then things get really nuts as she fights for anyone to believe her and he lawyers up while also murdering her friend (Elizabeth Pena, RIP) in front of her.  

On the whole - my take is this:  Jamie Lee Curtis is great - like, really solid, especially given what we see of her dialog and scenes.  Clancy Brown is a very 1980's macho cop but plays it with an everyman vibe that would have been nice to see in other work if folks had cast him for that.  Ron Silver goes between great and "oh, that's way too much", vacillating even within scenes.  He is also a smaller guy, and JLC looks like she could physically take him, which may be me projecting, but it is what it is.

But it's one of those movies where you feel like the script or final cut is frankensteined together for a lot of pieces of other movies and competing ideas. And it's probably not cool to say "I think Kathryn Bigelow is better than is, but this is badly directed and/ or edited sometimes" but that's my opinion.  The movie has holes you can drive a train through, and by the end I was watching to see "jesus, what now?" while simultaneously thinking at least Curtis was selling it.

Bigelow's direction is... interesting.  It's moody and pensive from the first frames.  There's a lot of slow-mo, and nobody seems happy.  This is dirty, gritty New York, just as the city was recovering from the 1970's mess.  But the constant default to slow-mo (which I'll say - I can't be sure Cameron didn't borrow from this for T2) feels a bit confusing after a dream sequence or two which don't really add much to the story.

In the context of 1990 - coming off of the 1980's - the story of a cop that needs to explain her actions, shooting a hold-up-man (an early career Tom Sizemore!) made sense in a way that now feels profoundly strange.  The notion that we would now believe a story where a cop was in trouble for shooting someone in the act of a crime - with witnesses! - does not add up.  Or that the police unions wouldn't surround and protect said cop from scrutiny does not play in any demographic.  And that's unfortunate, because the entirety of the movie hinges on what boils down to what the kids would now call "gaslighting".  

But part of what works in a way now that may not have quite landed in 1990 that was not as much in the conversation is the gender politics that boils under the surface.  The "gaslighting" - intentionally by Eugene, by default by all the men surrounding JLC's character - now seems absolutely charged by gender, and I think that's maybe the major coup by Bigelow in this movie - getting that in without pointing neon arrows at the issue and making her bosses uncomfortable with the idea that women are dismissed when they bring up a problem.  It gets framed as "well, he has a lawyer and we need to listen to him", and you just kind of know - that is not what is happening here.

But as I say, the movie has issues.

There's two whole scenes that are absolutely key where people say they didn't see Eugene or a weapon, and it doesn't make any damn sense.  Like - none.  People would notice a .44 magnum (which only holds 6 rounds, by the way, movie - not the 40 or so it seems to later in the film).    JLC is told she didn't see Eugene, when no one saw her *not* seeing him.  So all she has to say is "no, I saw his face.  I know this man and it was him" and apparently that would be enough to stop the reign of terror her life has become.

I don't know much about Ron Silver.  There was a brief window around this time when we were told "you love Ron Silver, America" and I didn't know who he was or why that was true.  He's not *bad* in this movie, but he's frankly in it too much.  Instead of keeping things mysterious and having a reveal that Eugene is, in fact, crazy - we see him doing crazy things and killing people.  

There are a half-dozen noir-trope ways that could have gone and had us learn of his madness and murderous intentions along with JLC, but instead, we see him baying at the moon and murdering people on the street.  It's poor writing for a thriller.  We don't need him boiling rabbits, but it shifts the audience to a waiting game for our hero to figure out what we've known for 30 minutes, and I can't begin to guess why this movie was written this way.

The movie brings up "why is Jamie Lee a cop?" directly at least three times, and it's never said.  And, frankly, that's a problem.  I think the insinuation is that it's her way of dealing with old family business, which *should* play into the theme, but instead plays into what's the worst sequence in the film and what is an otherwise superfluous and yet weighty plot point that - like too much in the movie - is thrown out there and goes unresolved.  

JLC's mother, played by Louise Fletcher, has a history of abuse at the hands of her father.  And her father is furious that JLC has become a cop.  about 2/3rds of the way through, she arrests her father for striking her mother, but then she... just lets him go.  Only to come home to a scene where Eugene has come into her parents' house like fuckin' Dracula and the dumbest scene I've seen in a movie in a while plays out, absolutely undercutting everything that just happened.

I am *baffled* by all the decisions that got us here.  Writers, producers, directors, editors, actors....  many people were involved, and it's so weird and confusing that these two things happen in the way they happen, and back-to-back....  If they were trying to make a point about the cycle of abuse, how JLC reacted by becoming strong enough to become a cop and protect herself and others, the movie undercuts this idea immediately by having Eugene come in and play her - and then never returning to "so what happened with the parents?" and never directly saying anything about the abuse.  

In fact, the movie just... ends.  And it ends... badly?  Dare I say I would rather the movie allowed Curtis to just arrest Eugene and bring him in after a city street saw him shooting at people and everyone would have to say "well, I guess we need to listen to cop-ladies."  Because it just ends like a dumb action movie, with a dead bad guy and a whole lot of unresolved plot.  I do not want it to end just because Ron Silver is dead.  I want to know "so... what happened to our hero?" and not getting that feels like the story is Eugene's, not JLC's.  And while I don't expect a parade for the character, learning what she learned, and seeing how this plays out after everyone finds out she was right - and did some crazy shit along the way because everyone else was an idiot - seems like the actual point.  But.

I guess, in the end, I feel like this is a thriller that doesn't feel like it knows how to maximize what it has, and is still trying to figure out what a strong female lead looks like in this sort of context.  But I'm mostly baffled by the clunky set-ups for the movie to happen.  It just feels lazy, which is not something I associate with Bigelow.  

Again, it's a shame, because it always feels like the actors are all in (maybe too much in with Ron Silver).  And a few minor tweaks could have been something.  And I'm curious about what happened with the movie.

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