A comic take on an actual bank job, Mark Steven Johnson’s “Finding Steve McQueen” is the sort of heist movie one wouldn’t mind encountering on a streaming service or cable channel, but seems out of place on the big screen. Of course, its very limited release suggests it won’t be in theatres long.
The script by Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon is loosely based on the United California Bank Robbery of March, 1972, in which a bunch of guys from Youngstown, Ohio, having heard a rumor that a secret slush fund for the Nixon campaign had been stashed at the Laguna Niguel location in Orange County, came cross country to break into the safety deposit vault, expecting to find some $30 million in cash there. Though the rumor proved false and the take was ultimately less, it was still large enough to make the robbery one of the largest in U.S. history at the time.
The names of most of the gang members have been altered in the picture, but not those of the main protagonist, Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel), a likable lug who admires Steve McQueen and tries to pattern himself after the “Bullitt” actor, and his laid-back, vaguely hippie-ish brother Tommy (Jake Weary). They’re nephews of the scheme’s plotter, a seasoned thief actually named Amil Dinsio but here called Enzo Rotella (William Fichtner), who’s also recruited rotund pal Pauly Callahan (Louis Lombardi) and hot-tempered Ray Darrow (Rhys Coiro).
The actual heist, which involved an explosion that took out part of the building’s roof and a search through the vault that dragged on for an entire weekend, is recalled in repeated flashbacks from 1979, when we see Harry, the only member of the gang still at large, confessing his part in the job to his incredulous but supportive girlfriend Molly (Rachael Taylor), the daughter of the local sheriff. In the flashbacks the POV of the robbers is also regularly intercut with the efforts of FBI agents Howard Lambert (Forest Whitaker) and Sharon Price (Lily Rabe) to catch the thieves; they’re puzzled by apparent White House connections to the case, a concern shared by their boss Mark Felt (John Finn)—who, of course, would later become Watergate’s Deep Throat.
Others can dissect the conflation of fact and fiction in the movie, but on its own terms “Finding Steve McQueen” is an amiable if totally ephemeral example of the heist movie. With his supporting turn in “Lean on Pete” and now this, Fimmel seems finally to have turned a career corner, shedding the leading-man aura he’d carried rather clumsily to do more character-driven work. Though Fichtner, Lombardi and Coiro periodically add a jolt of energy to the proceeding and Taylor shows flashes of anger, the picture’s aw-shucks rhythm is really controlled by him and Whitaker, who exudes caution and humanity not just as a cop but a family man.
That makes for a low-key genre exercise, easy to watch but equally easy to forget. Johnson’s direction lets it amble along, and the editing by Kathryn Himoff and Julia Juaniz follows suit. The languid mood allows one to appreciate the period detail that Kirk M. Petruccelli’s production design, Melinda Sanders’ set decoration and Melissa Vargas’ costumes achieve on a modest budget, and cinematographer José David Montero’s work is also fine.
One needn’t feel the need to search out “Steve McQueen,” but if you stumble on it, you won’t find it a painful experience.