Looking Back at the ‘90s Erotic Thriller Feminism of Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel

Blue Steel feels like an overlooked entry in Kathryn Bigelow’s filmography. It doesn’t have the online appeal of Point Break, from which Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze gifs populate Twitter timelines. It doesn’t have the history-making distinction of The Hurt Locker, for which Bigelow became the first and only woman to win the Best Director Academy Award. And it doesn’t have the cult appeal of vampire Western Near Dark or the strange sci-fi Strange Days, or even the rah-rah Americana of Zero Dark Thirty. Instead, what Blue Steel captured was a certain moment in the 1990s when the psychosexual thriller reigned supreme, with a blending of sensuality and menace. Thirty years after its release, Blue Steel still casts a long shadow that colored an entire subgenre to come, from The Silence of the Lambs to Basic Instinct and beyond.

Blue Steel, her third feature film, was a step up for Bigelow,. . With her first  two films—the Willem Dafoe-starring, motorcycle gang-focused The Loveless and Near Dark, a sort of miniature Aliens reunion in which an ensemble cast including Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton played drifter vampires—Bigelow demonstrated early her attraction to unpacking specific forms of masculinity and attempting to find defining truths within a myriad of male characters, a through line that remain consistent throughout her filmography. But before then, Bigelow pivoted with Blue Steel, co-written with collaborator Eric Red and focused on a female perspective: that of a rookie New York City police officer, an attractive young woman who disappointed her father and confused potential suitors with her career choice. 

Twelve years after fighting for her life as Laurie Strode in Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis was an inspired pick for NYPD officer Megan Turner, a more mature opportunity for the actress than her decade playing scream queens. “I never make a decision about a role with feminism as a criterion,” Curtis told MIT’s newspaper The Tech when interviewed as part of the film’s promo tour in March 1990, but that’s a strange observation to make when Curtis’s character deals with toxic masculinity every day. From her abusive father, who refuses to attend her graduation from the academy and tells her “I have nothing to say to you.” From her male partner, who wonders what would even inspire Megan to pursue this line of work (a question that Megan consistently dodges, giving a variety of violence-fetishizing answers). From a guy her best friend tries to set her up with, who is aghast and twitchy when he finds out what she does for a living. “You’re a good-looking woman. Beautiful, in fact. Why would you want to become a cop?” he wonders, and suffice to say, they never go on that first date.

During her first days on the street, Curtis plays Megan with a mixture of easy bravado and slight hesitation. She grins at being checked out by a fellow young woman, and when she sees a robbery going down in a grocery store, she springs into action. In a small but effective cameo, Tom Sizemore plays the robber who, like most men Megan runs into on the job, underestimates her, breaking into a grin when she demands that he put down his gun. But when he draws on her, Megan doesn’t wait to shoot, unloading her service weapon’s entire chamber into his body, blowing him through the store’s front window, and landing herself in major trouble as a result. Because when her colleagues investigate the scene, they don’t find a gun in the store, or on the robber. It looks like Megan went rogue and shot the man on her own—and it’s not a tough call  for her boss, Assistant Chief Stanley Hoyt (Kevin Dunn), to place her on an open-ended suspension.

What Megan doesn’t know—but what we do as viewers—is there was a man at the grocery store who swiped the robber’s gun for himself, who walked away from the scene without giving a witness statement, and whose possession of the weapon seems to trigger a mental breakdown. By day, Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) is a man whose split-second spontaneity and trigger temper make him an effective Wall Street commodities trader, a person who is practically expected to yell at others while convincing them to take his deals. And now by night, Eugene is a murderer, a man using the .45 Magnum he stole to indiscriminately gun down strangers on the street—shooting bullets on which he has scratched Megan’s name.

“I respond to movies that get in your face, that have the ability to be provocative or challenge you, that take some risks. I like high-impact movies. … I don’t want to be made pacified or made comfortable,” Bigelow told The Tech in that same interview alongside Curtis, and that’s an apt description for how Blue Steel progresses past Megan’s suspension and the beginning of Hunter’s killing spree. As Eugene manipulates his way into a relationship with Megan, his own mental state deteriorates while Megan’s fellow officers, including Detective Nick Mann (Clancy Brown), wonder what her connection to the city’s new serial killer could be. Bigelow switches back and forth between Eugene and Megan, showing his arguments with the voices in his head and her increased desperation as people around her continue to die, until finally, Megan realizes who Eugene really is. At that point, much like in Halloween, Curtis becomes a woman trapped in a duel to the death, vowing to get revenge against the man whose obsession with her has transformed into mania. 

There’s a lot of blood and a lot of sex in Blue Steel, and they often overlap. Curtis plays Megan as a woman confident in her physicality and unafraid to use it romantically; before she knows who he really is, Megan is often the instigator of her and Eugene’s make-out sessions. In a later sex scene with another character, Curtis’s torso is slickly sweat-drenched; her glass of whisky and cigarette afterward are clearly familiar pleasures. That self-indulgence is contrasted consistently with the phenomenally violent nature of the job: with the blood that spurts from the robber’s bullet wounds after Megan shoots him, with the blood that gushes out of the chest of the first man Eugene kills, with the blood that Eugene rubs all over his body from the dress of another victim, with the blood spilled on the floor of Megan’s bathroom when he ambushes her and Nick, with the blood that Eugene and Megan draw from each other in their final shoot-out, first in a subway station and then on the streets, hiding behind cars and hot dog carts as they empty their guns at each other. “I think violence in a cinematic context can be, if handled in a certain way, very seductive,” Bigelow added in that interview, and Blue Steel certainly blurs those concepts together. The action scenes are gory, sure, but engagingly shot and emotionally involved—Bigelow makes sure we feel their urgency, and their tragic results. 

As an early entry in the erotic thriller subgenre of the ‘90s, the components of Blue Steel would pop up over and over again throughout the next decade. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs also considered issues of identity, mental health, and sexual obsession, and picked up five statuettes, including Best Director and Best Picture, at the 64th Academy Awards. More lowbrow, but extremely successful at the box office, was Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, which this time flipped gender roles by making Sharon Stone’s underwear-eschewing novelist the femme fatale who was stalking Michal Douglas’s detective. And in the years to follow, various other films would play around with this mold to increasingly melodramatic effect, like the infamous Showgirls and Wild Things, but none of them would be as declarative as Blue Steel in its “female hero” concept. 

There is no question throughout Blue Steel that Curtis’s Megan is, though Eugene’s victim, also a worthy adversary. As Eugene himself tells her, “We’re two halves of the same person, you and I,” but that observation isn’t only a madman’s rambling: It’s an honest observation of how swiftly Megan moved to protect the people in the grocery store, how sure she was in her need to act, how tenacious she is in trying to find who the .45 Magnum Killer could be. Megan flirts with subordination as the film progresses, including cuffing Nick to his own steering wheel so she can chase Eugene alone, but Megan’s motivations are pure. We see it in Curtis’s face: How she holds Eugene’s gaze even while he smirks at her in jail; how frustrated she is to admit that she’s not entirely sure she could identify Eugene as the perpetrator of a specific murder; how she perseveres through the pain of a shot shoulder to one-handedly reload her gun and go after Eugene one more time. Bigelow wouldn’t return to female protagonists for a long time after Blue Steel, not until Jessica Chastain’s Maya in 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, but the no-bullshit attitude of that intelligence operative clearly grew out of the matter-of-fact, steadily poised nature of Curtis’s Officer Megan Turner. 

That’s not to say that everything about Blue Steel, 30 years later, has aged so well. The film’s portrayal of Eugene’s mental illness is vague in detail but very nearly exploitative in execution. Blue Steel was co-produced by Oliver Stone and Edward Pressman, who produced Stone’s Wall Street three years earlier; squint just a bit and Eugene Hunt doesn’t seem too different from Gordon Gekko. In fact, before the film introduces Eugene hearing voices, his character is frightening enough as an absurdly wealthy man, secure in his affluence and his influence, whose desire to kill is ignored by a society who would never expect it from him. The script probably would have worked just as well without the possibility of split identities. Also questionable is how enthusiastically Megan tumbles into bed with a character who, only a few days ago in movie time, was telling lewd jokes about oral sex while Megan was in a meeting to defend her conduct; the romance seems a bit fast. But what remains effective is Curtis’s convincing performance of a woman sure of her worth and of her skill, steadfast in herself even as nearly every man she knows questions her, disappoints her, or obstructs her. “You didn’t think I could handle it?” Megan asks in Blue Steel, and there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that neither Curtis nor Bigelow allowed any such doubt to get in their way.  

“Blue Steel” is streaming for free (with ads) on Tubi and Vudu.

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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