If you were an alien trying to parse American culture from the movies, you could be forgiven for figuring most people were either cops, criminals, victims, or innocent bystanders. It's a wonder the French have a word just for cop movies-they call them policiers and we don't, but no matter. American screenwriters definitely have the form down pat-too pat, in fact. Witness the herd of mismatched-cops-who-hate-each-other-on-sight-then-turn-out-to-be- best-friends stampeding the screen. And now that they've started making movies in which one of those buddy cops is from outer space, you know the limits of that idea have been pushed.
Blue Steel, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Ron Silver, could be just another one of those mindless boys-in-blue movies. Instead, Bigelow grabs a fistful of predictable film genre conventions, turns them inside out and upside down, then slams them together, filtering the result through her hard-edged lens; the result is both relentlessly stylish and thematically ambitious.
Make no mistake, Blue Steel bites off a mouthful, almost more than it can get down. It's chock-full of ideas: about a woman gaining power and a man losing it, about the city as jungle, about the insanity of murder as religious epiphany, about madness and convention, order and chaos. In fact, Bigelow may have made one of those arty thrillers that border on having too much style for their own good.
And that's fine with her. Easygoing, no-brain entertainment isn't exactly what she has in mind. ''You need to deliver on the level of entertainment while maintaining an integrity,'' Bigelow says. ''A movie can give you an insight, share an observation. It's not just something to eat popcorn by.''
No problem there. Blue Steel is definitely not going to be confused with last week's buddy-cop picture. And that's not only because the cop is a she and the wannabe buddy is a yuppie psycho killer. ''It was important to me that (police officer) Megan Turner have an androgyny,'' says Bigelow, ''that she really be an everyman, not a Dirty Harry who comes equipped with a gun and shoots.''
For Blue Steel's female officer, Bigelow turned to Jamie Lee Curtis, who synthesizes all the roles she has ever played from gangly but resourceful babysitter in Halloween to aerobicized icon in Perfect and duplicitous sexpot in A Fish Called Wanda into a loner whose quick draw hides emotional Jell-O. When Turner's demon lover tells her she's the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, your heart aches for how badly she wants to believe him.
There won't be similar stirrings for Ron Silver as the creepy commodities trader who doesn't want to kill her, but kill for her, and with her. The designer-suited, verbal acrobat sinks into psychosis the moment he meets Turner under somewhat stressful circumstances and realizes that happiness really is a warm gun. ''The gun is the symbolic engine of the whole movie,'' Bigelow observes. ''It's emblematic of authority, death, power, the point at which two lives connect. It's the heartbeat.''
It's a different heartbeat than you'll find in most conventional movie thrillers, however. Bigelow is charting some feral territory here. We've all heard the one about how every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints. Only Blue Steel isn't about a lawman who finds a killer and gets an ugly look at his own hidden desires. It's about what happens when a model citizen with a time bomb in his brain looks deep into Turner's eyes and glimpses a secret darkness there, a darkness that unleashes the killer inside his own soul. What follows are creepy mind games, heavy firepower, a few very bloody bits, an interminable chase scene, and a somewhat satisfactory solution all the standard elements of any cop movie. But whatever critics and audiences ultimately say about Blue Steel, standard probably won't be part of the vocabulary. ''You're always looking for the curve that will lift your story out of reality and out of the conventions of other movies,'' Bigelow observes. ''The things that work best are the things that are right in front of us the familiar from a twisted angle can be far more disturbing than the exotic or the fantastic: the real through an exotic eye.''
Bigelow, 38, is no stranger to taking expectations and turning them around, on-screen and off. She's a willowy beauty with a kick-ass sensibility that belies her fine arts background, a well-spoken smart woman fluent in the feverish language of exploitation movies. It's clear that she has a way with cinema's cliches, though she prefers to call it ''using genre, a common language, but refracting the conventions through a different prism.''