“Finding Steve McQueen” is a ramshackle indie heist drama that has a little bit (but not much) to do with Steve McQueen. The film’s central figure, a green-behind-the-ears thief named Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel), idolizes the squinty star of “Bullitt,” for all the reasons one might have back in 1972, when most of the movie is set. McQueen was then at the height of his popularity, but his star cachet, going back to films like “The Great Escape” and “The Cincinnati Kid,” predated the counterculture, and that was the mark of his mystique. In a New Hollywood overrun with shaggy idols like Warren Beatty and Elliott Gould, McQueen, with his baby-faced scowl, was the last neo-’50s maverick romantic stud, a guy too square to be hip and, for that reason, too hip to be square.
“Bullitt,” the movie that launched a thousand car chases (half a century later, we’re still chasing it), was the rubber-meets-the-road apex of the McQueen swagger, and in the early scenes of “Finding Steve McQueen” Harry styles himself in the image of that movie, wearing shades and a turtleneck and doing slow-mo flying-up-from-the-blacktop cruises in his 350 horse-power Pontiac GTO (a car he drives in lieu of the Mustang 390 GT that McQueen commandeered in “Bullitt”). Harry has a concrete blond look that’s sexy in a male-mannequin sort of way, but when he does his signature mime of cocking and shooting a gun, he could hardly be less McQueen; he’s got the baby face without the scowl. The Australian actor Travis Fimmel looks like Bill Pullman’s wholesome younger brother and acts with a smiley nervous flaky manner that suggests, at times, that the movie should have been called “Finding Eric Roberts.”
Steve McQueen was the essence of a certain brand of gleaming heartless cool, but “Finding Steve McQueen,” as directed by Mark Steven Johnson (whose journeyman credits range from the action fantasy of “Ghost Rider” to the indie sentimentality of “Simon Burch”), is an uncool movie in almost every way. It’s one of those films in which the period atmosphere relies too much on an official array of groovin’ ’70s rock songs (“Draggin’ the Line,” “Funk #49”), as well as the kind of cheesy “light” caper music you used to hear on TV soundtracks of the era. And though the movie is based on a burglary that actually occurred (it was the largest bank robbery in the U.S. up until that time), “Finding Steve McQueen” is overly invested in the broad comic irony of half a dozen bumbling yokels from Youngstown, Ohio, pulling off the crime of the decade.
The bar for heist films is high. They either need to be convincingly gritty street dramas, like “Rififi” or “Reservoir Dogs,” or entertainingly intricate Rube Goldberg whirligigs that revel in their mission impossibility, like “The Killing” or the best “Ocean’s” films. “Finding Steve McQueen” goes the down-and-scuzzy route, but nothing in the movie feels quite genuine, from the signposted ’70s macho dialogue (“That hippie chick on ‘Mod Squad’? Wouldn’t mind slippin’ her the high hard one!”) to the cheeky slapdash tone that suggests a B-movie Rip Van Winkle trying to make a heist caper that’s so weirdly pre-Tarantino it reduces every potential moment of danger to fake cuteness.
Harry is the film’s sidecar hero, but it’s his cousin, Enzo, played with lounge-lizard style by William Fichtner, who masterminds the heist, gathering up a group of hotheads, only one of whom, played by Louis Lombardi from “The Sopranos,” has a forceful presence. (“You ever read that ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’?” he barks. “You know, you’ll never look at those c—ksuckin’ birds the same again.”) Enzo is a Midwestern yob who hears a rumor, right out of the mouth of Jimmy Hoffa, that Richard Nixon has been amassing illegal campaign contributions and storing them in a dirty-money fund. Enzo figures that if they can rip off a president who’s ripping off the system, then no one will come after them. So he sets out to rob the United California Bank in the Orange County suburban hamlet of Laguna Niguel.
The heist is simplicity itself. The men use dynamite to blow a hole through the bank’s concrete roof, clogging the ancient alarm system with surfboard gel. In a few moments, they’re in, lifting cash and bonds from 500 safety-deposit boxes. By the end of the night, they’ve made off with close to $10 million. But are they going for the score, or are they trying to sock it to Nixon?
One of the many fuzzy aspects of “Finding Steve McQueen” is that the Nixon-slush-fund angle starts off as a practical motivation for the crime (it’s a way not to get caught), but once the robbery is successful, the idea that they’re trying to mess with Nixon as payback for his political sins (Vietnam, screwing with the unions) comes to the fore, even though it doesn’t totally parse. Enzo, in his greasy cantankerous way, is a Nixon hater, and the president’s crimes get nudged closer and closer to the center of the action. Everyone starts gabbing about Watergate (in a way that no one at the time quite did — the dialogue has a hindsight on-the-nose-ness), and Mark Felt (John Finn), the FBI Associate Director who turned out decades later to be Deep Throat, is on hand to lead 100 agents in an investigation into the bank robbery.
The real history of this heist is that the robbers didn’t hit the bank they thought they were hitting. (Nixon’s branch was the Bank of America in San Clemente.) And though the film sticks close to the logistics of what happened, there’s little suspense to either the robbery or its aftermath. Forest Whitaker plays an FBI agent who detects things in his own melancholy Zen space (it’s a fun performance, if not exactly an authentic one), but the solving of the crime comes down to a fluke: In the mansion the men rented, just across a golf course from the bank, they leave a dishwater full of dirty dishes, which gives their fingerprints away. (That is, in fact, just what happened.)
The only one who escapes is Harry, who clearly wasn’t drinking soda out of a glass that day. The film’s framing device follows his love affair with Molly (Rachael Taylor), the world’s most unconvincing “Bonnie and Clyde” fan, right up through 1980 (cue “Drivin’ My Life Away”), when Harry finally reveals to her who he is. Every one of these scenes is dudsville, forcing us to admit that however much the movie might have set off to find Steve McQueen, it never gets close to him.