Cop thrillers are a staple in the cinematic world. Nearly all can be counted on to possess certain common ingredients: suspense, eerie music, violence, crazed killers and most importantly, a tough but sympathetic policeman in a key role.
Two current films--"Blue Steel" and "Impulse"--have taken that recipe and added an unusual twist: the tough but sympathetic cop in the central role is a woman. Then, to add yet another variation on the theme, both films are directed by women, another Hollywood rarity.
"It is a weird thing for some people to get used to," said Lawrence Kasanoff, "Blue Steel" executive producer. "The people on the set, they're like construction workers and they see this tall, glamorous-looking woman saying 'Damn it, I want more blood.' I suppose it's harder for a woman because everyone is skeptical. In some parts of the country, boy, this really gets to people--the whole thing of a woman director and the whole thing of a woman in a man's role."
The perception that the projects were unorthodox for a woman to undertake is exactly what attracted both women to the films.
"That's the reason I wanted to do it--because it's a genre dominated by men," said Kathryn Bigelow, who directed "Blue Steel." "The impetus was to take a genre and kind of redefine it. To do a cop genre or do anything without sort of trying to ignite new life into it, then I think you're not expanding the medium, you're not really utilizing it to its fullest advantage.
"It would be very difficult for me to just approach something that reinforced the status quo--although that might be the safest road to take," said the 38-year-old Bigelow, whose previous directing credits include the offbeat vampire tale "Near Dark" and "The Loveless," an erotic psychological biker film. "When you have this great social tool, at the very least, take advantage of it as a means to communicate."
"Blue Steel," written by Bigelow and Eric Red, is about a rookie cop (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) who is suspended after her first day on the job for action taken that seemed to violate police procedure. She is brought back to the force to help track down a crazed murderer and the film traces her efforts to catch the psychopathic killer. Suspenseful chase sequences, violence and gory scenes abound.
Bigelow has long loved thrillers, and was particularly excited about taking a popular film style and adding a twist.
"Genre is the area in which the material can be subversive," Bigelow said. "You're entering something on the surface that appears very familiar and then it's refracted as if through a different lens. That fascinates me: You stretch that which is familiar like a rubber band. And just when you thought you might have stretched it too far, you snap it back."
Before becoming a director, Sondra Locke, 42, was known primarily as an actress. She debuted at 17 in the 1968 adaptation of Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," then later starred with Clint Eastwood, her companion of 13 years, in such films as "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "The Gauntlet" and "Bronco Billy." She had also directed the offbeat, artsy "Ratboy." Though she prefers black comedies or art films to thrillers, her second effort as a director, "Impulse," presented "the opportunity to take a genre and give it more nuance. I tend to be attracted to material that has a tough edge to it--darker material. I also tend to like things that are a little sardonic. I thought this has all the earmarks of what I'm looking for: It's more mainstream, it's entertaining, it's muscular and it has some edge to it."
"Impulse" is about a cop (played by Theresa Russell) who is taken off her usual assignment as an undercover hooker who lures in unsuspecting customers as part of a bigger plan to trap a high-stakes drug smuggler. She uncovers a more dramatic crime and is then faced with an ethical dilemma. "Impulse" also has the requisite suspenseful sequences and violence, (though it is a little less gory than "Blue Steel") and some romantic moments.
"My hope is to say: 'Here is a film that has all the thriller aspects of it, all the things that qualify as entertainment for Group A,' but I tried to add some texture, emotional context that maybe Group B will be interested in," Locke said.
For Locke, who was going through a much-publicized break-up of her relationship with Eastwood at the time, making the film was a kind of therapy. It provided her with something other than her personal problems to become immersed in.
"It was like something else to completely focus on," Locke said. "It became like my life preserver."
Both Bigelow and Locke had a hand in developing their stories. Bigelow co-wrote the screenplay and Locke helped in the rewriting of the script along with the film's producer, Albert S. Ruddy. Both were also interested in the psychological underpinnings of the female lead character.
"Here's a woman who was really living in a man's world and I found that fascinating," Locke said.