Kathryn Bigelow introduces her lead character, Officer Meg Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis), in the pre-credit sequence of Blue Steel (1990). In this sequence Officer Turner is reprimanded for not being thorough enough or trigger-happy enough during a Police Academy exercise. Essentially Officer Turner is told that she is not “man” enough for her job. Then comes the opening title sequence that feels as though it could have been cut from the discarded footage of The Thin Blue Line (1988). Bigelow’s camera slowly caresses a handgun from a myriad of angles demonstrating the power and the allure of the destructive weapon.
In Blue Steel the gun is everything. It is raw power, it is a phallic symbol of virility. What motivates Officer Turner’s psychotic nemesis, Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver), is his envy and anger over Turner’s possession of this symbolic instrument. Hunt, bored with his immense privilege, is impotent compared to Turner. Her shooting of an armed robber (Tom Sizemore) at a grocery store demonstrated to Hunt his powerlessness and his insignificance as a man. These feelings of inadequacy propel Hunt to compete with Turner and to control her. Hunt, brandishing his firearm, is toxic masculinity personified.
It’s interesting that Bigelow chose to make Blue Steel as her first major studio production. Bigelow, who was ostensibly gaining entry into the boy’s club that is Hollywood, takes the cops and crooks formula of the crime genre and turns it into a statement about the oppressive and violent nature of patriarchal culture. It’s virtually impossible to read Blue Steel as anything other than a metaphor for Bigelow’s own struggle to gain a foot hold in an industry dominated by some of the worst men around. Turner moves through a man’s world with only Det. Nick Mann (Clancy Brown) as an ally. Turner has to be “one of the boys” or else.
This reading of Blue Steel makes the sexual assault towards the end of the film even more disturbing. This act of sexual violence at gun point reiterates the physical commodification of women’s bodies within society while also articulating that within this patriarchal structure a phallus (gun) comes with an assumed and accepted supremacy. In the end, Turner can only drive Hunt away when she too has a phallus (gun) with which to defend herself.
Superficially, Blue Steel is an effective and stylish thriller couched in the aesthetic sensibilities of the exploitation film. Bigelow’s imagery is heavy handed in suggesting the aforementioned metaphors and is often prone to reveling in spectacles of sex and gory violence. Bigelow is directing in broad strokes that hit like a slug. Fresh from the success of Near Dark (1987), Bigelow is emboldened to make a traditionally masculinist movie about a woman and feminism. It’s an audacious and messy affair to be sure, but it’s one that is wholly mesmerizing on screen.