Finding Steve McQueen
3 out of 4 stars
There are some movies that if made up out of whole cloth or thin air couldn’t possibly be believed; their ludicrous plots and colorful characters would be too much to swallow and would obliterate all feeling of disbelief. “Finding Steve McQueen” is a film that works only because it is true, or kind of true. The sole thing about it that is difficult to believe is why it hasn’t been made into a live-action feature until now.
It takes place in Pennsylvania in 1980, with flashbacks from 1972 set in Youngstown, Ohio, and Laguna Niguel, Calif., but was filmed completely in and around Atlanta, including Marietta Square and Candler Park.
In tone and attitude (but certainly not ambience or atmosphere), “Finding Steve McQueen” most resembles Steven Soderberg’s 2001 remake of “Ocean’s Eleven,” a point driven home further when FBI agent Howard Lambert (Forrest Whitaker) notes that a crime scene looks like the one depicted in the original “Ocean’s Eleven” starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and most of the Rat Pack.
The movie opens with John (former model Travis Fimmel, also star of the TV series “Vikings”) confessing his past to his longtime girlfriend, Molly (Rachael Taylor). His name isn’t even John; in fact, he is Harry Barber, and he’s on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List. Although it might not come as a big surprise to fans of Fimmel and/or Taylor, both are native Australians convincingly playing apple pie American types.
Harry, his stoner Vietnam war veteran brother Tommy (Jake Weary); their uncle Enzo (William Fichtner); and two others get a tip from a never-identified source that President Richard Nixon (who Enzo vehemently despises) has millions of dirty slush fund dollars stashed in a California bank safe deposit box. They surmise they can get in and out and away with everything because Nixon and the bank would never report black money to the feds — a theory that is not as screw-loose, bat-guano crazy as it might initially sound.
Enzo is, in fact, Amil Dinsio, whose 2013 book “Inside the Vault” provides some of the uncredited source material for the screenplay by Keith Sharon and Ken Hixon. Other key details of the real crime were modified for the film, one of which provides for a particularly nasty third-act twist. Some might say that the writers and director Mark Steven Johnson are playing fast and loose with the truth, but as Oliver Stone once said about his “JFK,” “it’s not a documentary.” In actuality, the 2012 documentary “Superthief,” written and narrated by one of the two participants not portrayed here, will set the record (mostly) straight. But if you want to search it out and watch it, do so only after seeing this movie.
One of the more clever mini subplots is a running discussion between Molly and Harry and two milestone films from the early Hollywood new wave period. Gearhead Harry is a big fan of “Bullitt” — so much so that he tries to recreate the iconic San Francisco chase scene early in the film and has the movie poster adorning the wall of his apartment. Molly speaks of her love for “Bonnie and Clyde,” having seen it multiple times and mentioning it often when she and Harry are at the beginning of their courtship.
These conversations culminate twice in the final act with one version coming from Lambert in a keenly observational statement that poetically ties the two films together in a manner that’s only obvious when considered in retrospect.
The conclusion to the story of the real theft and the one depicted in the film don’t jibe in the least, and given the great disparity of it and other key aspects of what actually went down, it might have been better for all involved if the filmmakers had just made this a movie with no real names, places or dates and put extra emphasis on the much-needed “based on a true story” disclaimer.
Regardless of these many bumps and easily avoidable storytelling missteps — or, if you like, “alternative narrative choices,” — “Finding Steve McQueen” is still a fun and breezy low-calorie flick that’ll come and go in a flash, establish a fervent cult following along the way, and years (or maybe even months) from now will pop up on basic cable. You’ll stumble upon it on a cold and wet weekend, find yourself getting hooked and charmed without your consent, and love all of it despite the film’s flaws.