Finding Steve McQueen feels like a piece of music where everyone is playing the right notes but you just don’t like the tune. The film is well made, the acting is mostly good, the script is funny in places but the film just fell flat for me. Admittedly, I do not know much of the real Steve McQueen’s work, but I don’t think that should matter when watching a movie like Finding Steve McQueen. The film is based on a real crime that happened in 1972. A group of criminals from Ohio hear that President Richard Nixon has a secret slush fund of thirty million dollars in a bank in California, and they decide to steal it.
The film begins with Harry Barber, played by Travis Fimmel, admitting to his girlfriend Molly, played by Rachael Taylor, that he is a wanted criminal and telling her the story of him and his friends robbing the bank. We see the story play out in extended flashbacks. The story starts to get muddied when we also start flashing back to when Molly and Harry met which is after the robbery but before the present time of the movie. We also see the present and flashbacks from FBI Agent Lambert’s, played by Forest Whitaker, point of view. While the flash backs and various points of view paint a full picture of the events that happened and the people involved, they make the film needlessly complicated without adding much to the style.
The film is called Finding Steve McQueen because Harry is obsessed with the actor Steve McQueen. He uses McQueen’s name as an alias throughout the film and even dies his hair to look like McQueen. To the film’s credit, Fimmel really looks like McQueen. In fact, his use of the alias helped the FBI in solving the robbery. I’m sure there were references and jokes that I missed because I have only seen a couple McQueen films. But I think it is a sign of a weak script if you have to have prior knowledge in order to be invested in a character.
I like the heist movie genre because there is often a lot of attention paid to process and criminals who are really good at their job can be a lot of fun to watch. That is true of Finding Steve McQueen. We see that Harry is the “wheel man” and the film’s car chase scene is a lot of fun. We also get to see how they break into the bank through the roof even with a popular bar open next door and how they manage to go back several times over the weekend to continue robbing the bank. I was reminded repeatedly of a far superior heist movie, 1955’s Riffii, which also has a group rob a bank from the roof. The gang in Finding Steve McQueen even stops the alarm from ringing in almost the same way as they do in Rififi. I always find it challenging when a mediocre film references a far superior film. It always makes me want to turn off what I am watching and watch the better film instead.
There are some good jokes and visual gags in the movie that are vastly improved by a strong cast. William Fichtner plays the head of the gang, Enzo Rotella. Fichtner has always been an actor I respond to, even in small rolls. Rotella has to wrangle this group of mediocre criminals while pulling off the era’s largest bank robbery and he does it with a strong hand and clear focus. Fichtner also bring subtlety to Rotella’s clear obsession with screwing the president when they can’t immediately find his slush fund money. I mention that Fimmel looks a lot like McQueen but I never connected to his character. He wasn’t quite able to balance playing a character with an obsession and playing a real man. Whitaker, who can be very hit or miss, really understands Agent Lambert and breaths a lot of life into him. There is a funny moment that comes out of nowhere and has no bearing on the film when Agent Lambert practices his French horn in the office with a French Horn for Beginners book out on table. It just helps add layers to an agent that has clearly had to prove himself again and again as a black agent in the FBI in the early 1970s. Equally charming is Lily Rabe, who is quickly proving herself to be an incredibly talented actor, even in films that are not very good. Rabe plays another FBI agent, Sharon Price, who is working the case with Lambert.
While the performances help elevate the film, it never completely gets its legs underneath it. If you are a huge Steve McQueen fan, maybe you will like it more than me. But if you are in the mood for a heist movie, there are a lot more compelling options to choose from.