Bullitt (1968) / Thriller-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for strong violence and some language
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset, Simon Oakland, Norman Fell, Don Gordon, Robert Duvall, Georg Stanford Brown, Ferlice Orlandi, Pat Renella, John Aprea, Bill Hickman, Vic Tayback, Joanna Cassidy (cameo), Suzanne Somers (cameo)
Director: Peter Yates
Screenplay: Alan R. Trustman, Harry Kleiner (based on the novel, "Mute Witness", by Robert L. Pike (Robert L. Fish)
Review published March 5, 2007
Although many people associate Bullitt with the 10-minute car chase at the heart of the film, and for cementing McQueen's (and his Ford Mustang) iconic coolness factor, it is also cited by many as the film that would set the mold for cop thrillers to this day, most notably in its "maverick cop" protagonist. While it can take credit for making police films exciting, what it can't take blame for is just how over the top the action would eventually become, as this is, at its core, a very grounded film that spends more time in going over routine police procedures than in the memorable scenes of action. It's a shame that for today's short-attention span audiences, a film like Bullitt is deemed less entertaining than a wholly style-over-substance smorgasbord like Bad Boys 2. It's enough for a movie lover to want to turn in his critic badge and kick some ass, I tell you.
The plot is very straightforward: McQueen (The Thomas Crown Affair, The Great Escape) stars as San Francisco police detective Frank Bullitt, who has been specifically selected by a bigwig politician (Vaughn, Superman III) to tend to a high-profile witness, Johnny Ross (Renella) , who is to inform on the mob in just 48 hours. Someone must have tipped off the mob as to Ross's whereabouts, as two hit men enter the hotel room and blast away Ross and his police guard working the shift. Bullitt is almost sure to take the blame for the mess, but he is determined to get the culprits and find out who is leaking information.
Although films like The French Connection and Dirty Harry would prove to be even more influential, exhilarating, and thematically resonant than Bullitt, this is the one that showed the potential for exciting turns of events in seeing a tough cop openly defy authority to do what he feels is right, no matter what the cost to himself personally. Before this film, one can see that most movies involving cops, at their core, involved some very dry police investigations, with the bad guys being the more interesting characters. With Frank Bullitt, we have a cop that is every bit as interesting and edgy as the men he is supposed to take down, unpredictable in his actions, and seemingly at odds with what he is expected to do for his department from a public image standpoint.
As alluded to earlier, the sad part about a film like Bullitt is that, while definitely exciting in a time when bloody violence, intense car chases and salty language weren't the norm (made just after the lifting of the Hollywood Production Code), most films that came after of a similar nature would be even more bloody, more intense, and more explosive. To properly appreciate a film like Bullitt nowadays, it almost necessitates viewing it in context of the times in which it had been made, and not to stack it up against the Lethal Weapon series or its modern-day ilk. Ironically, in some ways its subdued nature (at least by the standards of today's action-thrillers) works in its favor; it's rare for a film to actually show how cops realistically operate when confronted with deadly brute force and high-pressure circumstances, and try to operate within the law.
Bullitt is a solid police procedural blessed with some exciting cut-loose moments that are a welcome relief from the heavy, sometimes stagnant delivery that can occasionally be a chore to sit through. Though it would win the Academy Award for its editing, Yates does draw out the story, often slowing the pacing in order to make for a more atmospheric drama that is more indicative of the style of films of the late 1960s than it is of the cop thriller genre as a whole. With a solid plot, interesting characters, and Steve McQueen's undeniable screen presence, it stands up today as a respectable effort, even if it could use some tightening. It's a shame that future genre pieces would only emulate the exciting chases and bloody bang-bang action, jettisoning the realistic, level-headed drama in between for absurd comic banter and glossy sensationalism.
©2007 Vince Leo