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Bullitt (1968)

May 19, 2011

9/10 Rad Lieutenants

More than just an iconic car chase, but, holy hell, what a freakin’ car chase.

Bullitt is about a Lieutenant with the San Francisco P.D. who’s tasked by an ambitious politician with protecting a witness on Saturday and keeping him alive so that the perp can testify in court on Monday. But thanks to a couple hitmen who are damn good at their job, the cop spends the next two days trying to figure out who wanted this witness dead before Monday comes around and the politician has his badge on a silver platter.

Alright, let’s get right to it. This may very well be the best car chase that’s ever been put to film, this is the antithesis of everything I hate about most of the car chases and action movies that Hollywood’s been churning out for ages now. These days, it seems like there are two options to choose from: action scenes that are filmed in super slow-mo, or action scenes where the camera is shaking like a polaroid picture from beginning to end until all we’re left with is a blurry mess of punches and peel-outs. I don’t know how we got to this point and it’s too bad that 300 and The Bourne Ultimatum are two of the select few that managed to pull it off, but none of it compares to action like this.

This is Steve McQueen – one the Top Three Ultimate Movie Badasses of All-Time – doing all his own stunts and gunning a Ford Mustang GT through the totally anti-car chase streets of San Fran until every hubcap has flown off and the sonsabitches in front of him are either cuffed or dead. No fancy cinematography, no bass-bumping soundtrack, just the revving engines of muscle cars, some insano camera placement, and the wise decision to let the cars do the talking. This is some Mad Max shit we’re talking about and it’ll get your heart racing. Hell yeah.

God, it’s no wonder that so many folks consider this the archetype for car chases and it’s a glaring testament to the many benefits of keeping things simple and playing to your strengths as a film maker. Freaking insane how wild this scene is and how well it holds up over four decades later. But like I said, that’s only ten minutes of the movie and the rest is pretty damn good, too.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen The Great Escape or Papillon, but this here seems to be a mighty fine measure of why Steve McQueen was cool personified. McQueen was one of these guys who doesn’t have to try very hard or say a whole lot to command the screen and establish himself as a seriously hardcore dude. He just had one of those faces that said a lot without changing expressions and was backed up by a calm, collected temperament that stood out in scenarios where most would be losing their shit. Then you throw in his reputation for doing stunts that would probably lead most action stars to die a fiery death, and not only do you make it onto the Cut The Crap banner with the likes of Newman and Eastwood (the other two Ultimate Movie Badasses of All-Time), but you’ve got one hell of a fit for the role of Frank Bullitt. What a freakin’ name, you could do whatever the hell you wanted with a name like that.

And McQueen’s underplayed approach works because it’s a pretty underplayed script that he’s working with. The dialogue is nothing fancy, the story is pretty straightforward for all its twists and turns, and while it may not be the flashiest cop movie out there, that’s also what sets it apart. You just don’t see movie like this anymore that take their time and work to build up a slow boil instead of trying to one-up itself from one shot of adrenaline to the next. Doesn’t have a whole to say about anything, but it sure is intense and it sure is awesome. Bonus points for a bit role from Robert Duvall as a cabbie and a Robert Vaughn who’s mighty convincing as our smarmy politician.

As a whole, the tone is dead-on and works like gangbusters, but the only aspect I wasn’t crazy about were the few times when Bullitt’s main squeeze tried to break though his tough exterior and get him to open up about his feelings and shit because his job is so gnarly. Just felt out of place amidst everything else that was so unflinchingly tough and stone-faced, and it’s not like it added anything to Bullitt’s character either. Not really sure why Bullitt’s love life was even included in the first place, strange direction to take the story in considering how every other minute is spent trying to crack this case. And Bullitt’s too many for that shit anyway. Bullitt.

So the story’s about as deep as a Law & Order episode and, for some reason, it works best when it doesn’t try to go any deeper than that, but those minor flaws are easily overshadowed by everything else that’s so effing boss about Bullitt. Reminded me a lot of The Friends of Eddie Coyle – another unreal movie directed by Peter Yates – it’s about the only introduction to Steve McQueen that you’ll need in order to get what all the hype’s about, and it’s such a great reminder of what a stone cold crime drama can be. And,  yeah, worth it just for car chase.

Man, that Peter Yates sure knew how to make ’em.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Jordan Richardson permalink
    May 19, 2011 6:43 am

    Word. This thing packs one of the best car chases ever and does some pretty neat stuff outside of the squealing tires, too. Cool review. I’ve not seen Bullitt in a long time, but your badass assessment’s got me in the mood.

    • May 19, 2011 7:59 am

      Hahaha. Thanks, man. That’s exactly what I was going for. Been a long time since I’d first seen it, too, but it doesn’t feel dated in the least. And thanks for dropping by!

  2. May 19, 2011 10:29 am

    SUCH AN AWESOME MOVIE!! I remember being a little let down by the story, but the foot chase across the SFO runways was spectacular!

    Also, just by the virtue of it being set in my hometown makes it a must own!!!

    And yeah, no car chase comes close to matching that one! What a scene! God designed the SF hills for a scene like that.

    • May 19, 2011 11:09 am

      Haha, totally agree, SF was absolutely for a movie like this. And, yeah, that final chase through the airport was awesome.

  3. HermioneO permalink
    May 19, 2011 11:17 am

    What? No love for Jacqueline Bisset? The stone fox of her day?

    • May 19, 2011 11:19 am

      Haha. She may be a stone fox, but I don’t even know why her character was in this movie.

  4. May 22, 2011 5:22 pm

    I caught up with this film a couple months ago ~ love McQueen and San Francisco is shot beautifully.

    And of course the car chases are exhilarating.

    Isn’t it funny “Bullitt” is so great, but yet it has inspired so many awful films?

    So many car chases now in days don’t even feel existent in this space-time continuum.

    Great review Aiden.

    • May 23, 2011 10:00 am

      Hahaha. Thanks, man. I feel like that’s inevitable when you make something so unbelievably awesome like this, the shitty imitators are bound to come. But at least some efforts do it right. Thanks for dropping by, man.

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