(Image courtesy of Momentum Pictures)
FINDING STEVE MCQUEEN— 3 STARS
Heist movies can tell you a crazy story or show you one. Go down an expansive list of the best. Some are strong in the gift of gab while others thrive on performing physical dexterity and thrills. The really good ones can muster and master both thanks to alluring charisma. Spinning all the charm in the world into a true story yarn, Finding Steve McQueen may not cut with cunningness, but it does not lack in persuasive enticement. The film opens exclusively at the AMC Streets of Woodfield location in the Chicagoland area this weekend.
Finding Steve McQueen carries the boasting superlatives of the detailing the “largest bank heist in U.S. history” and, according to director Mark Steven Johnson, one of “the greatest stories never told.” Don’t expect a film of that kind of scope and size. This is a big crime orchestrated by small people who think they are bigger than they really are. The year is 1972 and the illegal act is the United California Bank Robbery.
True to the era and flexing some notable production value from costume designer Melissa Vargas (Nerve) and production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli (The Incredible Hulk), Finding Steve McQueen flaunts quite the seedy style and swagger. Everyone seeming has either a stiff drink or a cigarette within reach of their pursed lips. The meekest of this squad and the teller of this story is Harry James Barber, played by Vikings soulful ruffian Travis Fimmel. Smirking and sauntering, that man kills with kindness and disarms those who meets with ease.
Harry is a bit of a dolt and a sweetie Ohioan who can’t seem to avoid silly mistakes or hold down work, but, boy can he drive. Harry is a lover of all things Steve McQueen, right down to the turtlenecks, haircuts, and muscle cars. His soft skills of fitting in and white-knuckle talent behind the wheel (orchestrated by experienced stunt coordinator and performer Chelsea Bruland and the shot variety of cinematographer Jose David Montero) earn him the steady employ of Enzo Rotella, an anti-Nixon sleazeball played by William Fichtner. Enzo receives a hot tip for a unique bank job out in California that supposedly houses the hush-hush slush fund of the maligned Watergate President himself.
LESSON #1: SOME OF THE GREATEST CRIMES ARE PERPETRATED BY ABSOLUTE IDIOTS — Enzo gathers his crew comprised of chunky chuff Pauly (24’s Louis Lombardi), the tough-talking toad Ray (Rhys Coiro of Entourage), our semi-protagonist Harry, and his rattled post-Vietnam bother Tommy (Jake Weary from It Follows). These goons head out to the Golden State to case the place and try to fit in with the gnarly hippies and dandy dudes of Laguna Nigeul. Watching these fellas operate makes you wonder how in the hell some many of these kinds of people pull these jobs off. What they lack in social graces and vocabulary acumen, they make up for in committed balls and toughness.
Lying about his criminal rap sheet, Harry strikes up a romance with a volatile moll effectively named Molly Murphy (Rachael Taylor of Transformers), who just happens to be a sheriff’s daughter (think preacher’s daughter only more bullets and badges). The whole of Finding Steve McQueen is told by Harry on the lam finally reconnecting with a scorned Molly years after the completed heist. He’s been begging for the opportunity to tell her the truth about all that transpired over a quaint meal at a diner. The former Daredevil and Ghost Rider director slows down to weave the past event around the reconnective meeting of the present. The movie adds a pair of slightly unconventional pursuing federal investigators, Howard Lambert and Sharon Price (Forest Whitaker and Lily Rabe, respectively), in for good measure, and even cameos the factual attention of FBI Director and “Deep Throat” himself W. Mark Felt (veteran character actor John Finn).
LESSON #2: SLOW DOWN, CHIEF — If there’s one unifying quality of all the would-be hoods of this movie, it’s that restraint of any kind is a challenge. The concept of “laying low” might as well be the equivalent of asking a preschooler to do calculus for these cronies, which makes for cheeky humor for sure. Piggybacking off of Lesson #1, these guys performed a brilliant heist only to be undone by big mouths, speeding tickets, and fingerprints left on dishes in a dishwasher.
The odd circumstances of this unlikely historical success match the up-and-down draw of the movie itself. When the impending job isn’t on point, the fish-out-of-water humor bubbles to surface for easy and simple laughs, but that tone can become tired and overplayed. To focus on the lovable Harry and Fimmel’s blue-eyed dreaminess adds stellar romantic appeal, but his sidebars with Taylor’s Molly do meander and eat time away from the potential intrigue. In the end, the comedic lightness wins over by close margin. There was certainly a porch-rocker and beer-sipper of a story to be told with Finding Steve McQueen and we get that entertainment.
LESSON #3: IDENTITY IN IDOLATRY — The level of aspiration within the characters to look cool and be something bigger than their actual place in the world is the overwhelming theme of this movie. Everything they want or like, from the Steve McQueen hero worship to the level of warped revenge wished upon Richard Nixon, is out of their grasp without aiming high and forcefully taking it. Even in joy or success, they’re pretenders who pale in comparison and fall short of the real shine they think matters. The movie is a pretender too, but, like our storyteller Harry, it settles into an easy-going place of truth and enjoyment in the little scores instead of the big ones.