Starring-Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn
Reviewed July 7, 2017
Bullitt is one of the ultimate “guy movies”, hardly a stretch considering it stars the “regular guy” hero of the time, Steve McQueen. With his macho, tough guy persona and his cool, confident swagger, he was a marquee hero during the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s. While the film is rife with machismo stereotypes and is not exactly a women’s lib film, it is also a good old-fashioned action thriller with plenty of chase and fight scenes to make most guys (and some girls) happy. The story is not too thought-provoking, but the film works as escapist fare and an example of good late 1960’s cinema.
Set in San Francisco, Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is assigned to watch a Chicago gangster, Johnny Ross, over a long weekend, before the criminal is set to testify against his brother on Monday morning. Robert Vaughn plays ambitious politician, Walter Chalmers, who is determined to see the case go off without a hitch and see convictions in the organized crime syndicate. Predictably, the weekend does not go as planned and Ross is attacked by hit men. This, in turn, sets off a cat and mouse game of deception and intrigue. As expected, the action is virtually non-stop with many action sequences lighting up the screen.
The plot of Bullitt does not much matter and, in fact, one does not need to completely understand what is going on to enjoy the film for what it is. The intent of a film like Bullitt is not of good story-telling, but rather of good action. This is not meant as a put-down, but rather good, honest critiquing. One can simply sit back, relax and enjoy the testosterone laden affair.
Bullitt contains some riveting scenes that raise it above an average, middling, action flick. The muscle car chase involving a then state of the art and flashy Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger is fantastic and one of the high points of the film. The quick and edgy camera angles as the cars zip down the windy and narrow San Francisco roads make for compelling tension. Will one of the cars careen off the side of the road or blow up in an explosion? Since one of the cars holds Frank Bullitt and the other car the bad guys, it is not tough to guess how the sequence will end. But it’s good fun all the same and well filmed.
The other spectacular sequence is the finale- as Frank and company overtake busy San Francisco airport in pursuit of a baddie about to board a transcontinental flight, the chase sequence leads them throughout the airport, onto a taxiing plane, and finally onto the runway, as a plane is about to take off. It is action at it’s finest and also a treat for the viewer in that it brings us back to airport days, pre-9/11, when airports were just-different. The luxurious flight crew, the innocence, and the glamour- all a distant memory. The scene is such that it shows all of the airport elements- the people, the employees, the airport, and the planes, giving it a slice of life feel, circa late 1960’s airport days.
Appealing is the time period that the film is made in. 1968, a great time for film, Bullitt capitalized on the newly liberal use of blood that films were able to show, so in this way, Bullitt is an influential action film. Dozens of imitators (some admittedly with superior writing) followed, including classics Dirty Harry and The French Connection. These films contain the same basic blueprint that Bullitt has.
A negative to Bullitt is the trite way in which women are portrayed. Female characters are written as either dutiful nurses, gasping in fear and helplessly running away when an assailant runs rampant in the hospital, praying for a man to save the day. Or, they are written, in the case of Bullitt’s girlfriend, as a gorgeous yet insignificant character, given a laughable scene in which she questions whether or not she really knows Frank after witnessing the violence in his job- hello? he is in the San Francisco Police Department after all.
Bullitt is meat and potatoes kind of film-making. An early entry into what would become the raw 1970’s and the slick formulaic 1980’s action genre, the film deserves credit for being at the front of the pack in style and influence. The story and character development is secondary to other aspects of the film and Bullitt is just fine as escapism fare.