Everyone loves a good genre film and the heist film is certainly one of Hollywood’s favorite charms. A craft as revered as William Goldman and Elmore Leonard. As cool as a Tarantino-curated soundtrack. And why not? Those stories feed into inherent impulses. An underdog sticking it to The Man. The Anybody gambling for a life as a Somebody. Thieving out of sport. Or need. At times, crime does not pay in the glitzy cinematic world. That unlikely hero fails. And falls. Worlds are destroyed. Irreparable harm befalls both innocents and the not-so. Other times? Ah, other times everything simply works out.
Based on the startlingly-real but mostly-unreported 1972 United California Bank Robbery, the film Finding Steve McQueen narrates one of the largest bank robberies in US history. Much like the quiet nature of the actual robbery, this underdog film suffered a criminal VOD release instead of well-deserving theatrical accolades.
Screenwriter and Southern California News Group reporter Keith Sharon broke the story of Harry Barber – bank robber, getaway man, and Steve McQueen idol – in his Stealing Nixon’s Millions expose, later serialized in his true crime podcast Crime Beat. Barber, along with professional-criminal Enzo Rotella (a delightful William Fichtner who brings a meal of prosciutto and provolone along with his SAG credentials) and a crew from Youngstown, Ohio, steal away to Laguna Niguel, CA where, apparently, President Richard Nixon stashed over $30 million; election money absconded from the Dairy Farmers’ Association. The robbery was a success but the story, much like this film, went mostly unheard.
The film, directed by Mark Steven Johnson, cleverly jumps around in time setting Harry’s new small-town life against the daring heist, and the FBI’s manhunt, led by a French horn-playing Forest Whitaker. Johnson fashions a more comedic look at the heist genre. More Old Man & The Gun; less Reservoir Dogs. And the style works. Travis Fimmel plays out Barber with equal parts McQueen fetishism and wide-eyed “What, me worry?” enthusiasm. Fimmel sells the role. Barber not only wins the heart of Molly Murphy (Rachael Taylor), but his aw-shucks honesty makes him that perfect Anybody. One that deserves to be a Somebody.
Finding Steve McQueen is a fun ride complete with an 8-track’s worth of 70s pop-culture references and music. The film weaves to the genre beats yet for all of its real-life incredibleness, doesn’t pop those points to their best. Perhaps it’s the honesty of the tale, or too much silliness, but the film ultimately downplays the usual genre tropes and regrettably eliminates the amped-up thrill, taming the crime, and restricting the heat between Barber and Murphy.
Unusual, ridiculous, honest, fun, Finding Steve McQueen is an entertaining heist flick that successfully steals the time and deserves a happy ending.