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1982's The Loveless is how Bigelow got from Set-Up to Near Dark. A bike gang led by a young Willem Dafoe is waylaid in a one-bar Georgia town, where they mildly harass a few locals, do some drinking, and generally preen and pose like they're all Brando in The Wild One. The nothing plot gives Bigelow the chance to perfect her road photography, graceful camera glide-pans, and soundtrack taste (here, it's mostly 50s girl groups). As she will in Near Dark and Point Break, Bigelow in The Loveless both celebrates and satirizes excessive attitudes and lifestyles that aren't ridiculous to that specific world's members. As in Point Break, seemingly laughable dialogue ("let's flush out of this toilet") makes sense within the film's stylized boundaries.
It's pat to assume that 1989's Blue Steel, about a female cop (Jamie Lee Curtis), fresh out of the Academy, trying to make it in a tough, mostly-male profession, is autobiographically inspired. Pat, and no doubt correct. Bigelow's films in general are more interested in men (The Weight of Water is another exception), but it's worth noting that while Curtis's Megan Turner does face sexual discrimination hurdles, her primary concerns become those a cop of any gender might face - confronting sadistic violence and preserving justice. Sadism arrives in the form of Ron Silver as a day trader-cum-murderer who grows obsessed with guns and Turner after he witnesses her shoot a robber (Bigelow regular Tom Sizemore). The director asks a lot of Silver (romancing charm, schizophrenic workouts, bloody toweling-offs), and the actor is admirably game. Blue Steel was set and shot in New York City, but Bigelow stylized it in such a way that it can feel like Los Angeles substituting for New York. Rain, tricky shallow focus, and hazy, colorful shafts of light turn the city into a dreamy Anywhere.
The 1990s were a great decade for American movies, and Bigelow (who was married to James Cameron at decade's start) contributed two of the best and most defining with Point Break and Strange Days. In Point Break, Bigelow further explored the limits of stylization. Everything—the attractiveness of the actors, the unreal hilarity of the dialogue, the brash abuse of cliché, the tactile beauty of the ocean photography—is pushed to the extreme, and the story of two surfing bros on either side of the law ends up grand opera. Bigelow offers Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze at their hottest as man-candy for any gender, and has the gumption to make their relationship meaningful, and create a world where lines like "he's a modern savage—he's a real searcher" take on a dignified power.
Strange Days, considered by some Bigelow's magnum opus, fused the then-topical subjects of virtual reality (like the concurrent Brainscan and Virtuosity) and a Rodney King and OJ Simpson-fueled distrust of police, with an ambitious, epic thrust that commercial audiences weren't quite ready for. In the film's dystopian 1999 Los Angeles, there's a black market for "SQUID" discs: recordings of violent, sexual, or otherwise stimulating experiences that users can plug into and undergo as if they were there. Strange Days transcends time because although the technology marks it as mid-90s, the convoluted plot and seedy atmosphere hearken back to The Big Sleep and Touch of Evil, and in a looser and less mechanical way than close cousin Blade Runner. Ralph Fiennes, so good as a seedy art fence in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, provides much of the movie's considerable sleaze as the unbuttoned, multiple ring-wearing Lenny Nero, and William Fichtner and Michael Wincott do their part to add more.