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JACK SMITH

MOVIE REVIEW : 'Blue Steel': A Low-Caliber, Bloody Thriller

March 16, 1990|SHEILA BENSON and JACK SMITH | TIMES FILM CRITIC

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?

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