If you felt like being snarky you might say the best thing to happen to Kathryn Bigelow was getting divorced from James Cameron (rim shot!). I would say the best thing to happen to Kathryn Bigelow was Mark Boal.
If there is a recurring theme in Bigelow's early films it is the age-old notion of style over substance. Granted, "Point Break" (1991), for all its incessant lunacy, is so stylish, the lack of substance is generally negated. Her 1987 vampire thriller "Near Dark", believe it or not, is even better than "Point Break", less lunatic and more stylish. In the last couple weeks, however, I have given Bigelow's "Strange Days" (1995) and "Blue Steel" (1989) maiden viewings and in each case the style simply could win out over the substance problem.
It becomes more glaring because quite clearly Bigelow wanted these films to have substance, to be about something, to say something. "Strange Days", culled from a screenplay by the aforementioned Cameron and Jay Cocks, is an intriguing idea, set in the last 48 hours of 1999 and its primary plot concerns characters literally re-living other people's memories via a helpful cinematic sci-fi device called a SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). Our protagonist, Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), a disgraced ex-L.A. cop, now peddles them on the black market while simultaneously being addicted to SQUIDs involving the former light of his life Faith (Juliette Lewis).
Imagining the ultimate voyeur experience is a marvelous concept and one of the film's finest moments involves Lenny re-experiencing a sexual experience with Faith as Bob Marley's eternally hopeful "Three Little Birds" jaunts along on the soundtrack, blissfully unaware how its positivity fails in the face of Lenny's narcissistic longing.
But the film - overlong by a good 20 minutes - devolves into a routine "whodunit?" involving the requisite psychopath who is going around murdering innocents and releasing the murders on snuff SQUIDs. The idea can only mask this genre obviousness for so long and Bigelow's style, while dreamily forceful (a sequence having nothing to do with anything in which Faith fronts her punk band on a P.J. Harvey cover is pure ecstasy), is rendered mute as the story lumbers to a less than thought-provoking conclusion.
"Blue Steel", meanwhile, is even more laborious. Opening like "Strange Days" with Bigelow's trademark POV shot and a dramatic scene that turns out to not be quite as real as you think it is, the film then eases into its opening credits which involve nothing beyond cooly (bluely) ogling a Smith & Wesson.
Jamie Lee Curtis, rocking the 80's mullet as only Jamie Lee Curtis could, is a Megan Turner, a brand new member of the NYPD who within her first 24 hours on the job has blasted a robber to kingdom come. The robber drops his gun. The gun lands next to a cowering stockbroker named Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver). Slyly, quietly, he takes the gun for himself.
When we see Eugene in the seconds before this supermarket stick-up he is perusing his grocery list - an actual written-out grocery list. This clues us into the type of person he must be, but once he has possession of the gun he goes off the rails and admires himself in the mirror of the office bathroom before gleefully murdering a stranger for no reason whatsoever in a driving rainstorm. Yikes. "Blue Steel" appears to be setting itself up as a commentary on America's gun culture and the way a shiny weapon can so easily turn a person on.
Alas, 'tis not to be. Despite the written-out grocery list, Eugene quickly outs himself as a murderous sociopath who decides to toy with this Megan Turner and in no time at all "Blue Steel" has devolved into a hoary genre exercise. By the end, Eugene has transitioned into a traditional movie monster who CANNOT be killed. I honestly thought Megan was going to have to bait Eugene into a hydraulic press à la "The Terminator" to finish the job.
Two movies, two humongous helpings of style, two appealing ideas, all lost in a failure to appropriately explore them and instead lean on fossilized story tropes.
Enter: Mark Boal. Two strong, clear-headed scripts ("The Hurt Locker" and, even better, this past year's "Zero Dark Thirty"), Bigelow behind the camera and voila! A Best Picture win, a Best Director win and another Best Picture nod. Here's to hoping Bigelow & Boal never break up.