The truism that movies should not remind their viewers of better films in the same vein gets a real workout in Finding Steve McQueen. The protagonist (he’s not quite active or admirable enough to be called the hero) of this crime flick, Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel), is fixated on the eponymous star, so Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair are referenced. His girlfriend Molly (Rachael Taylor) loves Bonnie and Clyde. FBI agent Howard Lambert (Forest Whitaker) brings up Ocean’s 11. Yikes. It’s probably too much to expect that Finding Steve McQueen will live up to one or more of those forebears, and while it doesn’t strain for that sort of grandeur, it’s too scattered to have much of an impact.
There’s one other classic that comes to mind when watching Finding Steve McQueen, though no one mentions it since it came out years after this story takes place. By now, it’s as much of a cliché to note a movie’s debt to Reservoir Dogs as it is for a movie to imitate it, but it just can’t help coming to mind in a scene where a group of criminal buddies cruise a highway and spitball about the ’70s actresses they’d like to bang. This doesn’t come from a place of nostalgia; the scene takes place in 1972, though that’s not where the movie starts, and the time-jumping structure also recalls the Tarantino approach. A subtitle over the opening scene tells us we’re in Deerwood, PA in 1980, and just to remind us when we are, we get Eddie Rabbitt’s “Drivin’ My Life Away” on the soundtrack and When a Stranger Calls and A Little Romance on a movie theater marquee (though both those films came out in ’79, but never mind).
Here we first meet Harry, played by Fimmel as a likable lunkhead, as he confesses to Molly that he’s a longtime fugitive (and that the name he’s been telling her, John Baker, is false): A Wanted poster in a local post office has clued him in that he can’t escape his criminal past. Cue the scenes in ’72, when Harry is living in Ohio and recruited by his cousin Enzo (William Fichtner) to join in a bank heist. And not just any heist: Enzo has gotten wind that Richard Nixon has $30 million in illegal campaign contributions stashed in a suburban California vault, and believes taking it would be a perfect crime, as it’s the kind of money that won’t be reported stolen.
Fichtner, no surprise, is the best thing about Finding Steve McQueen, making Enzo a working-class schemer motivated to attempt the theft by a plausible sense of political outrage. It’s not just about the money; he wants to stick it to Nixon, for reasons ranging from Vietnam to the president’s screwing of the unions. (Watergate has yet to occur when they put their plot in motion; at one point when Enzo rants about Nixon, his buddy Paulie, played with earthy appeal by Louis Lombardi, says, “Maybe someday they’ll nail something on him,” and Enzo replies, “Never happen,” nudge nudge.) The movie, scripted by Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon, is based on a true story, and the promise of seeing this particular historical heist brought to the screen has a lot of appeal, with the potential for colorful characterization and both trenchant and amusing subtext.
Unfortunately, the writers and director Mark Steven Johnson (working in a lower key than in Ghost Rider and Daredevil) spread it all too thin, jumping back and forth from the prep and execution of the heist to Lambert’s investigation to Harry and Molly eight years later. The time-shifting becomes needlessly distracting, as the latter couple’s drama is interrupted by flashbacks to how they met and fell for each other, and the gang’s setup for the break-in cuts to Lambert checking out its aftermath. Covering the amount of ground Finding Steve McQueen does requires giving the material space to breathe, and at 91 minutes, neither the central plot nor the side stories are given sufficient time to have proper impact.
As a result, the pleasures of watching the pieces of the heist puzzle fall into place are diffused, and there are few surprises for fans of the form. This is the kind of movie where Enzo tells Harry to “keep a low profile” when checking out the bank’s security system, and you can correctly guess Harry will wind up making a hell of a racket. There are moments that land here and there, as when Molly brings Harry to a family picnic full of uniformed cops, and there’s a modestly affecting scene toward the end involving Harry and his brother Tommy (Jake Weary), but their relationship is one more subplot that needed more time. Finding Steve McQueen doesn’t find a way to make McQueen truly relevant to Harry’s story, and Tricky Dick’s cash stash proves less important to the narrative than it’s cracked up to be; in the end, this could be any bunch of unlikely crooks going after any big score.