Bullitt ★★★★

I went into Bullitt expecting to see an awesome car chase, and it certainly delivered on that front. I wasn’t expecting Bullitt to be a compelling crime mystery. Or a renegade cop procedural where, refreshingly, its lawman isn’t such a wild rogue that he becomes an anti-hero. Nor did I expect to realize that the ending of Heat is essentially a loving homage to Bullitt’s finale. That chase may be the film’s ultimate legacy but the airport-set closer is equally impressive. Suspenseful, excellently-paced, strikingly set among landing planes and bustling terminal, it’s one of the many merits that make Peter Yates’ classic worth watching beyond its impact on action cinema.

The film may be remembered as an action movie but Bullitt leans more towards being a thriller and mystery. Politics, the underworld, and law enforcement all collide in a mob conspiracy that escalates towards a satisfying yet bleakly anticlimactic finale. Steve McQueen’s titular lieutenant is exhausted, pragmatic, smart, and a rule-bender...but never psychotically so. Unlike many would that follow in his footsteps, you get the sense that he’s a righteous man surrounded by a turbulent sea of dangers, as opposed to being a reckless cowboy. Outwitting and eventually just surviving requires a few dirty moves, however Lt. Bullitt never enjoys having to take such measures.

But the chase is probably the first thought when Bullitt comes up, for good reason. It was immediately apparent how much its pursuit through the hills and outskirts of San Francisco created a before-after milestone for cinematic car chases. I was reminded of how Bruce Lee’s arrival transformed martial arts choreography into a tactical trading of blows, and Bullitt felt similar in its impact on the chase. The cat-&-mouse jockeying for position, the road as a battleground of screeching tires and crunching metal, a harmony between aggressive sense of speed and deliberate tactile control over the vehicle: the sequence is pure and thrilling fundamentals.

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