Saturday, February 6, 2010
The Greatest Kick Of All
The acclaim that Kathryn Bigelow has received for making THE HURT LOCKER is totally deserved and if she winds up winning the Oscar for Best Director, making her the first woman to do so, that can only be a good thing. She’s also an extremely beautiful woman, something that has been pointed out by more than a few people during the past year. The amount of times it’s been brought up has led a few people out there to wonder about the tact of such remarks, particularly some that were made when Bigelow won at the DGA awards. I do honestly wonder if a 58 year old woman would necessarily have a problem with her striking good looks continually being pointed out but hey, it’s not like people are being sarcastic about it. And sometimes it’s just the way we are. The combination of enormous talent and beauty isn’t necessarily something that can easily be ignored. At least, I’m not going to try to ignore it and I’ll gladly say to anyone that as an action director she’s one of the best working today. If I ever met her I hope I’d be able to compliment her on her work through the years and not babble helplessly like Ralph Kramden but I won’t make any guarantees. Damn, she really is stunning.
Still, I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again—I wish that more of her movies were as good as she is. NEAR DARK remains fantastic more than two decades after it was released and while I have relatively few issues with THE HURT LOCKER (it’s not my choice for Best Picture but I wouldn’t be too upset if it won), too often the scripts she’s working with, and in some cases helped to write, feel either underdeveloped or undernourished. Looking at them enough times it becomes clear that she is more interested in the stylistics and thematic goals which she is trying to achieve, something that can easily be to the detriment of the narrative. Not to mention that at times the movies wind up playing as flat-out absurd as a result. Her cop movie BLUE STEEL, released in March 1990, is a prime example of this and remains a work that contains genuinely striking imagery as well as a provocative premise which in a number of ways interestingly ties into recent discussion about people commenting on her looks. But the script feels like it was jotted down on a few scraps of paper the weekend before shooting started, making the overall effect seem empty and far less resonant than it should have been. If some of the visuals weren’t laid out in such an expert manner it probably wouldn’t have gotten any attention at all—we’d just be watching yet another lousy cop film out of the millions that have already been made, only this one just happens to cast a woman in the lead. But the skill that is present makes it a shame that it didn’t have a stronger script that would compliment its imagery. It makes the film not substantial enough and, ultimately, extremely frustrating. There barely seems to be a frame that isn’t impressive in some way and yet I can barely take anything in it seriously for a second.
Rookie cop Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) has just joined the New York Police Department when during her very first night on patrol she stumbles onto a supermarket robbery which results in her shooting the assailant. As his body shatters the plate-glass window he falls through his gun flies to the ground unobserved, landing right by stock trader Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver). Staying quiet, he pockets the weapon and walks off into the night. The lack of weapon found at the scene turns out to be a problem for Megan with the investigation placing her on suspension but, unknown to her, the event has triggered something in Eugene who simultaneously manages to ‘accidentally’ meet Megan while beginning to use the weapon for his own purposes. When bullets found at the scene of a crime have Megan’s name stenciled on them she’s brought into the investigation unaware of how close the answer she’s looking for really is.
All things considered, it’s a fair question to ask how much of this film is really about Kathryn Bigelow, having made NEAR DARK and co-directed THE LOVELESS at this point, trying to get ahead in the man’s game of being a film director and what this does to every male she comes into contact with. Curtis’s mannerisms in the lead have a certain resemblance in their confident-yet-shy nature to how Bigelow comes off in recent appearances at awards shows and Megan’s flip explanation for why she wants to be a cop, saying “I wanted to shoot people,” could certainly be taken several different ways. Made at the time Bigelow was married to James Cameron, her current Best Director Oscar competition, to give BLUE STEEL credit its clearly stated theme of a woman trying to get ahead in a man’s world while maintaining her individuality captures the attention from the very first images. The character possesses strength and intelligence (she knows that the robber had a .44 from forty feet away and we believe her even if the other characters don’t) but she knows enough to she hasn’t yet overcome her problems, which seem to have their roots in her parents’ horrible marriage, which makes her unable to open up fully in a relationship. Her own interest in men is at times ambiguous (but ultimately not really) and she is clearly envious of her best friend who has a husband and kids but it’s as if it’s not in her wiring to do the same. One potential guy asks her, “You’re a good-looking woman, beautiful in fact. Why would you want to become a cop?” making me wonder if any Hollywood sleaze ever asked Bigelow if she was more interested in acting than directing back in the day. The men who are around her, good or bad, can’t help not because they’re impotent or evil but because ultimately she has to overcome these issues herself. The cinematic skill brought to this is undeniable with truly bold imagery throughout but is irrevocably hurt by what comes close to being a complete and total lack of compelling narrative.
The script by Bigelow and Eric Red correctly acknowledges the subtext throughout but never seems aware of just how ludicrous it all is. It maintains a conviction but also has a certain lack of intelligence and the one unexpected beat the whole time is just how early Eugene Hunt gives up on his charade of just being a normal guy interested in her. Silver’s character is a ludicrous construct, desiring to use the gun/penis extension that was once unsuccessful in penetrating the woman he becomes obsessed with and now is fully intent on using it to get her attention, giving the impression that Bigelow is having him represent every lame guy she ever went out on a bad date with. This would be fine if there were any wit or compelling reality on hand but the plotting is too thin to keep from being frustrating with it and only becomes more so as it goes on with stupid decisions made (“I’ll take you home to get some sleep,” Megan is told when there’s a lunatic out there who could turn up at any time) and characters who seem to exist only to be sacrificial lambs. The nature of the visual style only manages to amplify this feeling of frustration like when someone gets killed in a truly visceral manner complete with a bullet hit that seems meant for us to feel it more than we would in another movie, complete with a close-up of blood splattering on a wall. The elements are there to make this a truly feminist action film combined with a boyfriend-from-hell element for the post-FATAL ATTRACTION era but on a conceptual level Bigelow doesn’t do much with these things other than provide us with the basic ideas. By the hour mark I always kind of check out, with nothing left to pay attention to but the style. Because of the thinness of the plotting there’s only one way this action movie could end, no matter how long the third act decides to drag things out (and the running time is still only 102 minutes). It’s presented in a climax which gives us an interestingly unreal showdown between the two leads in New York’s financial district but also features panicking extras that always make me think of people screaming as they run in the way of the shootout in old POLICE SQUAD! episodes. But even here, there’s always something fascinating about how Bigelow places her characters in the frame (cinematography by Amir M. Mokri), depicting them in ways that go beyond what any dialogue could tell us—she’s certainly more interested in them than she is in depicting New York which never seems to be anything but a generically big, teeming mass of, well, blue and steel. BLUE STEEL is admirable and certainly not a piece of hackwork but is ultimately hurt by being completely unwilling to acknowledge that a compelling story wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Displaying a great amount of physical confidence in the lead role, Jamie Lee Curtis is ideal casting, coming off as believably forceful in the action scenes and yet displaying an intriguing amount of shyness when she doesn’t quite know what to make of a guy. And when she figures things out—like when a guy at a barbecue played by Matt Craven is clearly turned off by what she does—she knows how to take control of things again and Curtis plays these contrasts very well. Ron Silver, who passed away in March 2009, has the more problematic role going from some more intriguing silent moments—he doesn’t have any dialogue of note for the first half hour of the film—to moments of hysteria which, granted, are meant to be over-the-top but don’t lead to much more than him becoming not much more than just another reincarnation of Michael Myers for Jamie Lee Curtis to fend with. By a certain point I just lose all interest in him and it feels like a waste of such a good actor. Clancy Brown has some nice moments as Curtis’s sort-of love interest coming off as the most likable and reasonable person in the entire picture, the very good Elizabeth Pena is wasted as her best friend while Louise Fletcher & Philip Bosco can’t seem to do much with the awkward material as her parents (Bosco saying, “I get mad,” is a touching moment almost because of how clumsy it is). Richard Jenkins, playing Silver’s attorney, brings some intriguing sharpness to the nothing role and I found myself wanting to see this sleaze get his comeuppance since he actually knows what he’s doing as opposed to the wacko Silver who by a certain point can barely even be considered a character. Tom Sizemore, later one of the leads of STRANGE DAYS, makes an early appearance as the supermarket robber at the beginning. I assume that the J.C. thanked in the end credits is Mr. Cameron.
One thing I’ll say is this--while watching BLUE STEEL this time more of it worked than I had remembered, particularly during the initial courtship of Megan (their initial dinner scene is strange and enticing in all the right ways) and leading up to the character’s discovery of her new man’s true nature. It was only as the film went on combined with thinking about it afterward that my impatience with it grew. The lack of interest in any sort of reality or credibility could be considered dreamlike, meant to be experienced in a primal frame of mind but the finished product needs to be better for that argument to hold. Much of the action is impeccable, with the movie’s visceral feel genuinely admirable but its lack of interest in providing a compelling story, something that could only provide depth to its own feminist subtext, is enormously frustrating. Based just on how the action is directed, it’s surprising that Bigelow hasn’t gone on to do a dozen other movies of this kind since its release. Why not the BOURNE sequels? Why not a Bond knockoff? Why not more giant star vehicles after POINT BREAK? (has anyone ever seen K-19 THE WIDOWMAKER? I know I haven’t) Maybe she doesn’t want to just take jobs for hire which is certainly admirable but it’s still hard not to wish that there haven’t been more explorations of extreme behavior from the director because, as THE HURT LOCKER (written by someone else, it should be said) has proven, she’s only gotten better. And oh yes, she’s beautiful. Hopefully there will be more films by her to look forward to in the future. Seen in the wake of all the acclaim that has resulted from the recent film BLUE STEEL remains a tantalizing, but nevertheless frustrating, look at the immense degree of her talents.