A low key, tough guy cop thriller that no doubt influenced the likes of William Friedkin and Michael Mann, Bullitt is a movie where - although not much in the way of plot or character development - its approach to authenticity by not going over the top with its action sequences, while staying away from the usual cop movie clichés, lifted the bar in regards to how cop movies should be made.
Lt. Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a no nonsense San Francisco cop assigned to protect a star witness who is to appear before a senate hearing. When the witness is murdered, Bullitt takes it upon himself to find the men responsible, while the screws are applied to him politically from the ambitious Senator Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) who was using the witness for political gain.
As Bullitt, Steve McQueen's eternal coolness is displayed in all its glory, with the camera on him the majority of the time. Acting wise his role isn't a big stretch, but his presence is so strong that we cannot take your eyes off of him, which is a bonus since dialogue wise his character does not have much to say, a great example of a picture saying a thousand words.
The majority of the time we see Bullitt go through his usual investigatory methods as he talks to various informants (one of whom is played by a pre-Godfather Robert Duvall), as he tries to get a lead on the men who killed his witness. But then out of nowhere comes an excellent car chase through the streets of San Francisco, the decision not to have any music adding a heightened sense of realism as the camera switches from behind the drivers seat to outside and then back again.
Robert Vaughn gives a career best performance as a politician on a power trip, a weasel/hustler hiding behind a respectable title, who always knows when to say the right things and wear the right clothes. Jacqueline Bisset however is wasted as McQueen's girlfriend, her role nothing more than eye candy: pretty to look at but ultimately dead space.
Since Bullitt was released in the late 1960's it is seem dated in some parts, with the film's jazz, brass and percussion score not standing the test of time. Thankfully the score is not used all that often.
Also, various scenes – emergency surgery on Bullitt’s witness which focuses on the fact that the surgeon is black; the camera focusing on a bumper sticker which reads "support your local police" after a tense shootout - feature director Peter Yates provide ill advised social commentary, which the likes of Spike Lee and Roger Donaldson have also splattered throughout their films.
Yet those instances aside, Bullitt is an enjoyable and fresh take on the cop movie genre and one of McQueen's best.