Director Mark Steven Johnson has finally found the creative maturity it takes to begin with a so-so story and infuse it with enough entertainment steroids to turn it into a project that works.
It looked hopeless for a while when Johnson was directing misses such as “Daredevil” and “Ghost Rider.”
Johnson’s latest effort, “Finding Steve McQueen,” isn’t perfect. Or halfway perfect. Or even one-quarter perfect. But he does take what would have been a rather bland heist story and mix it with a mediocre love story to create an enjoyable final product. It’s an example of getting the most out of the material at hand. A major part of that success comes from casting that is strong enough to lift up the uninspired script by Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon.
Half of the movie is based on the true story of one of the biggest bank robberies in United States history. A ragtag group of crooks from Ohio decided in 1972 to travel to California to break into a bank where they were told President Richard Nixon was hiding $30 million in illegal campaign contributions. Their logic is if the money is illegal, no one is going to be in a rush to solve the crime.
The crew is run by the no-nonsense Enzo Rotella (William Fichtner), who agrees to rob the bank as much to get the money as to show his hatred of Nixon. Fichtner (“Mom”) is an actor who makes any film he is in work better just because of the way he can bring life to a scene. Most of the bank robbery moments offer nothing new, but Fichtner gives that half just enough edge to hold a viewer’s attention.
As for the other half, that revolves around Rotella’s selection of the driver for the team, Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel). Barber has spent his entire life admiring movie star Steve McQueen and fancies himself as being a lot like the characters McQueen played in his movies.
Although Barber is part of the heist, Johnson is able to move away from that half when the story begins to bog down and focus more on the relationship between Barber and Molly Murphy (Rachael Taylor). Their story unfolds years after the robbery, but the two halves fit together because Barber is explaining his life to Molly in flashbacks.
The role of Barber is lightyears away from the dark and somber work Fimmel has been doing on the cable series “Vikings.” He doesn’t come across as comfortable when having to deal with the romantic storyline as when his character gets to swing a sword and shield. The key here is Johnson was smart enough to cast Taylor, who is warm, charming, funny and sweet enough to make the romance feel real.
There are constant comparisons to how Barber wants to be like Steve McQueen, but the better comparison is Taylor to McQueen’s “The Getaway” co-star Ali MacGraw. Like MacGraw, Taylor has a way of making you care about her character and all those around her. It’s done with such a soft touch that the audience is won over before anyone can realize what is happening.
“Finding Steve McQueen” would have had a stronger cops-and-robbers side if there had been at least one different casting. Forest Whitaker, who plays the chief investigator into the robbery, is a phenomenal actor. The problem is the character comes across like the work Whitaker did in “Taken 3” instead of feeling fresh.
Even with that casting stumble, the way Johnson has structured the film so it effortlessly goes from one main element to another is enough to keep “Finding Steve McQueen” from making audiences want to make a great escape. At least Johnson has come a long way from his days when he was making movies that did send audiences running.
(At AMC Town Center.)
‘Finding Steve McQueen’
Rated R for sexual references, language.