Steve McQueen is often criticized for portraying characters that resemble his own persona on screen. However, this critique overlooks the essence of stars like McQueen, Bogart, Wayne, or Newman. They are not merely actors; they are presences, with personal legends that have been cultivated in our minds through countless films.
When these stars deviate from their established image, it often feels forced and inauthentic. Fortunately, “Bullitt” embraces McQueen’s persona and director Peter Yates skillfully crafts a film that utilizes his strengths. The result is one of the finest action movies in recent memory.
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McQueen in His Element
In “Bullitt,” McQueen portrays a San Francisco cop assigned to protect a syndicate witness. However, when the witness is ruthlessly gunned down in a brutally direct scene that leaves a lasting impact, McQueen finds himself caught in the midst of a political battle.
Robert Vaughn delivers a commendable performance as the politician exerting pressure on McQueen, who must now hide the victim’s body while unraveling the complexities of the case.
A Masterfully Executed Plot
One of the most impressive aspects of “Bullitt” is its ability to keep the convoluted plot clear and concise. Director Peter Yates and the talented team of writers manage to maintain a tight grip on the narrative, avoiding the pitfall of losing track of the story’s intricacies.
Unlike other films that become muddled in their complexity, such as “The Lady in Cement,” “Bullitt” maintains a firm hold on its audience’s attention.
Yates’s Expertise in Action
“Bullitt” marks Peter Yates’s second directorial effort, following the success of “Robbery,” a gripping film about England’s notorious train heist. In “Robbery,” Yates showcased his talent for crafting exhilarating chase sequences involving intense gun battles, close calls in heavy traffic, and stunning cinematography. It comes as no surprise, then, that “Bullitt” features an equally breathtaking chase scene.
Lasting approximately 11 minutes, McQueen takes the wheel, driving at breakneck speed through the hilly streets of San Francisco, pursued by relentless gangsters. The audience is left gripping their seats, witnessing heart-stopping collisions, near misses, and hair-raising maneuvers that leave their stomachs in the basement.
Missteps with Unnecessary Romance
Unfortunately, “Bullitt” succumbs to the temptation of including a romantic subplot for added sex appeal. Jacqueline Bisset, undoubtedly a captivating presence, is cast as McQueen’s love interest.
However, every line she delivers feels disastrously out of place. There is one particular speech that is so poorly executed that it takes the movie a good five minutes to recover. This ill-advised addition detracts from an otherwise superb film.
Learning from Past Mistakes
This isn’t the first time director Peter Yates has made the mistake of introducing unnecessary romantic elements into his films. “Robbery” needlessly featured Stanley Baker’s wife, resulting in three superfluous scenes. “The Detective” suffered from a similar issue with Lee Remick, and “Madigan” burdened itself with Inga Stevens. Perhaps it would be wise to exclude romantic entanglements altogether or, as demonstrated in “Coogan’s Bluff,” incorporate female characters as policewomen.
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“Bullitt” is a cinematic gem that fully capitalizes on Steve McQueen’s on-screen allure. Director Peter Yates expertly harnesses McQueen’s persona to create a thrilling action movie with a tightly woven plot. While the unnecessary romantic subplot may be a misstep, it fails to overshadow the overall brilliance of the film. “Bullitt” remains a testament to McQueen’s enduring legend and stands as one of the greatest action films of its time.