Wednesday 29 December 2010

Movie Review: Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt has quite a few things going for it: the coolness of Steve McQueen, the chic glamour of Jacqueline Bisset, the attractive locations of San Francisco, the muscle of a Ford Mustang, and the thrills of a prolonged, legendary car chase. Yet somehow, all the pieces of the jigsaw do not make a complete picture.

San Francisco Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is personally selected by sleazy politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to protect Senate Sub-Committee witness Johnny Ross, who is stashed in a dumpy motel waiting to give testimony that will damage a Chicago criminal syndicate.

But Bullitt and his team are too easily penetrated; Ross and a member of the police protection team are severely wounded. Bullitt soon realizes that all is not what it seems, a larger conspiracy is at play possibly with the aid of inside informers, and he has to reassemble the puzzle pieces to sort out the plot.

Director Peter Yates struggles with a lightweight script that relies too much on style at the expense of any character and dialogue sharpness. Sure, McQueen and Bisset look great, but they say very little of substance and are comprehensively drowned out by the roaring Mustang and the bustling streets of San Francisco.

Not having much character-driven drama to work with, Yates does the next best thing by keeping the camera work and framing interesting and highly kinetic. He delivers the rightfully highly-regarded car chase between McQueen's Mustang and the bad guys in a Dodge Charger. A total of 16 cylinders and more than 700 horsepower roar around - and often fly over - the insanely steep streets of San Francisco, burning rubber and smoking tires in a scene that set the standard for all future serious movie car chases.

And Yates ends the film by taking the action to San Francisco Airport for an elongated and almost dialogue-free climax, including Bullitt and his foe crossing active runways and mingling with giant jets getting ready for take-off.

But even by thriller movie standards, Bullitt has massive plot holes. Why do the assassins not finish-off Ross and his protection detail at the motel? Why do the assassins decide to run from Bullitt to instigate the car chase -- when they were the ones tailing him? How exactly does Bullitt uncover the destination of the phone calls that were made from a phone booth? Just by going to the same phone booth? At the climax, why does the prey give away his location by firing at a very distant Bullitt? And why is there a massive line-up and ticket-check to leave the airport? And can Bisset's character really be that clueless about the life of a police lieutenant? Does she not go to the movies?

Bullitt also suffers from the "unkonwn villain" syndrome, where the focus of the chase continuously shifts and finally lands on barely defined baddies. Since the movie provides very little reason to know or despise the enemy, a lot of the tension steadily seeps out over the final 30 minutes.

Ultimately, Bullitt is all about the visuals, but beneath the admittedly shiny surface, there is little substance.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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