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Bullitt (HD DVD)

Warner Bros. // PG // February 27, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 21, 2007 | E-mail the Author
In the space of two hours, Bullitt distills everything that propelled Steve McQueen to become the biggest box office draw the world over in what's arguably his best known lead role. It also features, as if I really need to spell this out, one of the all-time greatest car chases, ten minutes so skillfully executed that even right at forty years later, it still ranks among the best ever committed to film.

Some of the movie's surviving cast quip in the McQueen retrospective on this disc about the wretched state of the screenplay in its early drafts, with changes being made so late in the game that even during rehearsals, the cast was running through a script they knew wouldn't ever make it onto the screen. That last minute retooling paid off, for the most part. Bullitt doesn't have the most iron-clad story, but even with its many twists and turns, the plot never seems overcomplicated or difficult to follow. McQueen takes the title role of Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, a detective for the San Francisco P.D. The laconic loner has been assigned babysitting detail, watching over a key witness in an attempt by smarmy, overly ambitious politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to bring down 'the organization'. Bullitt has a junior officer man one of the first shifts, and while the detective is dozing off at home next to his impossibly gorgeous architect girlfriend (Jacqueline Bissett), a pair of hoods bust in with a shotgun and pump shells into the witness and the young officer. With both victims near-death and Chalmers snidely leveling threats all the way, Bullitt sets out to track down the thugs, quickly becoming ensnared in an elaborate conspiracy and finding himself in the sights of a vast criminal network.

With McQueen starring as a loner who plays by his own set of rules, the immensely successful Bullitt set the template for countless cop action flicks in the decades to come. Not only did Bullitt do it first, it did it better than most. McQueen just effortlessly exudes cool, and unlike the vaguely similar movies that quickly attempted to ride its coattails, Frank Bullitt doesn't tear into any preachy monologues about what a cesspool the world is, toss out an endless parade of quippy one-liners, or bed whatever bombshells he stumbles upon throughout the course of his investigation. The movie doesn't have to go to those great pains to show how cool Frank Bullitt is; he just is. This is an iconic performance by McQueen, who can convey so much with a look that he doesn't need to be bogged down with reams of dialogue. In fact, Frank Bullitt is probably the most laconic lead in an action movie until Terminator 2 rolled out nearly a quarter-century later. He lacks the cynicism and heartlessness of a Dirty Harry -- Bullitt seems like he's sincerely doing what he thinks is right, not just going through the motions mandated by a screenplay. I used to ask myself what the hero did the day after the climax of a blockbuster action flick, and Bullitt is one of a select few that bothers to answer that.

Then, of course, there's that damned chase. Running at an epic ten minutes, McQueen flinging himself through the streets of San Francisco in a Ford Mustang at dizzying speeds as he chases down a black Dodge Charger is still a visceral thrill even after all these decades. Brilliantly choreographed and blazingly fast -- not overcranked as was the norm for chases at the time -- this intense, near-legendary sequence has still rarely been matched. Although the most dangerous moments of the chase had been left to stunt drivers, McQueen spent a fair amount of time behind the wheel, in keeping with director Peter Yates' mandate for authenticity. There's no score blasting throughout the chase: just screeching rubber, the thud of tires against asphalt, and the throaty roar of American muscle. Bullitt was shot entirely on location rather than at a Studio City backlot, adding to that sense of realism by using professionals instead of background actors; many of the people working in the hospital, for instance, are actual doctors and nurses, not just a parade of Hollywood hopefuls with a headshot and a smile.

There's a lot to like about Bullitt, but it's hardly a perfect movie. Frank Bullitt seems to have a love interest purely because he's supposed to, I guess, and as drop dead gorgeous as Jacqueline Bissett is here, she's more a model than an actress, and her character is a total waste. (It's Bisset who's saddled with the obligatory Dirty Harry speech about the dismal state of world we live in.) Really, Frank Bullitt is the only particularly compelling character in the entire movie, despite names like Robert Duvall scrolling through credits. Several key elements of the plot go unexplained or really don't make much sense on close examination, and as Yates puts it on the disc's audio commentary, it's written that way because there wouldn't be a movie otherwise. Bullitt doesn't have the hypercaffeinated, frenetic pace of modern action movie, although I don't see that as inherently being a bad thing. Regardless of how others may react, Bullitt remains one of my all-time favorite action movies, and it's a movie I find myself liking more and more with each viewing.

Video: Despite the misprint on the flipside of the case, Bullitt is presented at 1.78:1, close enough to its original theatrical aspect ratio. Director Peter Yates spends a good bit of his audio commentary speaking about the limitations of the location shoot, lacking the more sophisticated equipment and fast speed film so widely available today, and not every shot had been masterfully and meticulously lit. At least partially as a result of that, Bullitt is a grainy and sporadically soft film. Detail has a tendency to slink away into the black maw of the movie's more dimly-lit sequences, with some shots so underlit that they had to undergo heavy tweaking in the lab just to make them watchable (and even then just barely). The level of fine detail is often impressive when the camera has plenty of light to work with -- a substantial step up over what I'd expect from a traditional DVD -- and any flaws in the source are all but absent. It's not the most eye-popping of Warner's vintage catalog titles, I'm still pleased with the way Bullitt turned out on HD DVD.

Audio: A couple of pans aside, the Dolby Digital Plus stereo soundtrack is easily mistaken for mono. The dynamic range of this nearly forty year old film is rather limited -- the rumbling engines in the frantic chase have some presence but hardly the guttural roar I'd expect -- but Bullitt's dialogue emerges reasonably well, and there are no pops or loud hiss to distract. Not astonishing or anything but perfectly fine.

Monaural dubs have been included in French and Spanish along with optional subtitles in the usual languages.

Extras: This HD DVD features the same set of extras as the 2005 two-disc special edition DVD set, with one of its feature-length documentaries getting an upgrade to high-definition.

Director Peter Yates focuses more heavily on his approach to filmmaking rather than the usual production anecdotes in his audio commentary. There are a couple of great stories -- the British-reared Yates having trouble conveying his direction in "English", souping up a Ford Mustang so well that it lost a visual sense of speed on film, and Vaughn's sleazy role dampening his hopes for real-life political success -- but Yates prefers to comment on shooting the film in a more European style on location with the limitations of film technology in 1968. His search for authenticity is a particularly favorite subject, such as his extensive use of non-actors, shooting entirely on location in San Francisco when such a thing was unheard of in Hollywood, and relying more on the expressiveness of his cast than expository dialogue. Yates also discusses his perception of Bullitt as a sort of urban western, an angle that hadn't occurred to me in the several times that I've watched the film. This isn't the most engaging commentary -- Yates is prone to lapsing into lengthy pauses, he sometimes struggles to find the word he's looking for, and he can be somewhat repetitive -- but I really enjoyed it and would recommend taking the time to give it a listen. And yes, he does explain why you keep seeing that green VW bug in the film's legendary chase.

Bullitt, which took home an Academy Award for its masterful editing, is among the many films featured in The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Making. This feature-length documentary delves into the invisible craft of editing, propelling what was a novelty a century ago into the widely celebrated artform it is today. More than two dozen film editors contribute their thoughts and discuss the evolution of editing: Thelma Schoonmaker, Dede Allen, Tom Rolf, and Michael Kahn, among numerous others. They're often joined by the directors they spent so many months huddled next to in the editing booth, including George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Alexander Payne, and Steven Spielberg.

The most instantly striking aspect of The Cutting Edge is that it's presented in 1080p high definition video with Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio, and although there are a couple of standard definition clips scattered throughout (Psycho and Vertigo disappointingly among them), it packs on high-definition footage from scores of movies, some dating back more than fifty years: The Wizard of Oz, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jaws, Ben Hur, The Matrix Reloaded, Raging Bull, Arsenic and Old Lace, How to Marry a Millionaire, Easy Rider, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scream, and Titanic just to rattle off a few that aren't available on HD DVD or Blu-ray at present. The documentary also takes care to include footage from the dawn of cinema and from several early, deeply influential foreign filmmakers to show how far the art has evolved. Bullitt is highlighted only briefly as part of a discussion on editing chase sequences, but The Cutting Edge is such an well-made documentary -- equal parts informative and entertaining -- that I would've cheerfully recommended it if it had been released on its own. Its inclusion here at no extra cost is even more greatly appreciated.

Bullitt is featured more prominently in Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool. Clocking in around an hour and a half, this Turner Classic Movies-produced documentary covers the entirety of McQueen's life and career, from his days on a modest TV western to cementing himself as the most successful action star in the world, anchored by interviews with his family and the cast and crew of many of his most-loved films. Nearly all of his film roles are touched on in at least some capacity, including lesser-known ones such as An Enemy of the People and Le Mans. The comprehensive documentary doesn't white-wash over McQueen's troubled side, something as fundamental in shaping his on-screen persona as his unrelenting charm and piercing blue eyes. The documentary is letterboxed to 1.78:1 and has not been enhanced for widecreen displays.

The HD DVD also includes a charmingly dated full-frame featurette from 1968 entitled "Bullitt: Steve McQueen's Commitment to Reality" (10 min.), littered with alternate takes and a good bit of behind-the-scenes footage, along with an anamorphic widescreen trailer.

Conclusion: Bullitt is deservedly considered a classic action flick, thanks to an understated but iconic performance by Steve McQueen and some brilliantly staged action sequences that still get pulses racing nearly forty years after cameras first rolled. Given the limitations of the its rough and tumble photography, the movie looks terrific on HD DVD, bolstered further by a solid commentary track and two first-rate feature-length documentaries. Highly Recommended.
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