There are a number of leading actors, who by virtue of film roles they played, have become closely associated with cars.
There’s Burt Reynolds, whose star turns in Hooper, Stroker Ace, and the Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run films gave him his automotive bonafides.
Then there’s Vin Diesel, whose nine appearances as Dominic Toretto in the Fast and the Furious franchise has made him the king of modern-day car movies.
And we can’t forget Nicolas Cage in this discussion, since starring in the remake of Gone in 60 Seconds alone promotes him to the group.
But there is one actor who undoubtedly tops this list owing to his roles as well as his renowned personal obsession with cars and motorcycles. Of course, I’m referring to the King of Cool himself, Steve McQueen.
From his spin in a dune buggy in The Thomas Crown Affair, to tearing up the streets of San Francisco in that Highland Green’68 Mustang GT in Bullitt, to screaming down the Mulsanne Straight in a Porsche 917 racer in Le Mans, no one did it better behind the wheel on screen.
One of McQueen’s least remembered films, produced while he was dying of cancer, offered some memorable automotive action as well. The film is 1980s’ The Hunter, and for this installment of Rob’s Car Movie Review, I thought we’d take it for a spin. So let’s roll!
The Hunter is based on the real-life story of Ralph “Papa” Thorson, one of the most famous bounty hunters active in the latter part of the 20th century. In 1976, author Christopher Keane’s biography of Thorson, as well entitled The Hunter, was published and immediately became a hot property in Hollywood as the basis for a film adaptation of Thorson’s life.
Ultimately, Rastar Pictures landed the option on the book and secured financing from Paramount Pictures to produce it, in exchange for the theatrical distribution rights in the United States.
Capricorn One screenwriter Peter Hyams and television writer Ted Leighton adapted the book into a screenplay, which was then handed to seasoned helmer, Buzz Kulik for direction.
Producer Mort Engelberg had initially sought to cast a veteran actor in the lead role who wasn’t a superstar, so as to not to distract the audience from what he wanted to be a grounded portrayal. When McQueen made his interest in the project known though, Engelberg found it hard to turn down the prospect of having the world’s number one box office draw in his film, and the role ultimately went to McQueen for the rumored sum of $3 million.
Rounding out the cast were legendary character actors, Eli Wallach and Ben Johnson, Kathryn Harrold, and LeVar Burton in his first motion picture appearance.
The film has no cause-and-effect plot per se, but instead presents us with a slice of Thorson’s life. His live-in girlfriend (Harrold) is pregnant, his house is a veritable clubhouse for ex-cons who he has previously turned over to the law and is now giving second chances to, and he repeatedly goes after criminals who have jumped bail. All the while, he is being stalked by a psychopathic ex-felon intent on revenge for Thorson having hunted him down. That’s about it.
Atypical for a film of this sort is the amount of humor injected into it. While not rising to the level of slapstick, there are moments that are fairly over-the-top and incongruous with some of the more intense moments in the film. Because of these lighter elements, the film lacks an edge, something it sorely needs, and instead plays like a television movie-of-the-week, all sanitized and de-burred. It could have been a way better film if it was handled in a more sardonic manner like Bullitt was.
McQueen manages to handle the humor with aplomb, however, and delivers a solid performance, but it takes a bit getting used to not seeing him in his trademarked intense, brooding mode.
One comedic element that does serve the film well though is how Thorson is depicted as being a horrifically bad driver. It acts as sort of an in-joke to just about everyone who is familiar with how proficient McQueen really was behind the wheel. The man won the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring, beating Mario Andretti by 21 seconds, in case you didn’t know!
Thorson aside, many of the film’s characters are hugely under-developed and seemingly serve no purpose to the narrative.
There’s the police detective who confides to Thorson that he’s a dirty cop and subsequently commits suicide. We don’t really care, because the character was never really fleshed out, to begin with, and we were given no idea as to how or why Thorson knows him, or how close their relationship was.
Then there’s the character of Tommy Price (Burton), who serves absolutely no function to the story except to be brutalized by the psycho out to get Thorson.
Even Eli Wallach is wasted here. His portrayal of Ritchie Blumenthal, the bail bondsman that Thorson works for, is fine, but aside from one scene in which he imparts some relationship wisdom onto Thorson, is a hollow and pointless character who simply disappears without a trace in the second act.
It almost feels as if scenes were shot involving these protagonists in which they were expounded upon more, but for one reason or another were left on the editing room floor before making the final cut.
And while we’re on the subject of cutting, the film’s editing, as well as its cinematography, are two facets that are glaringly substandard. The former is sloppy, with jarring, unintentional jump cuts and continuity errors abounding. The latter is so basic that it lacks any kind of creativity whatsoever, and I’m fairly sure I’ve seen more evocative lighting schemes in soap operas.
All is not a disaster here, however, as thankfully for us, there are numerous great cars and automotive action that balance out the film’s shortcomings.
Thorson’s car is a splendid 1951 Chevrolet Styleline DeLuxe two-door convertible. Painted in bright yellow with a black interior, the choice of car reflects the character’s interest in antiques, as also evidenced by his collection of vintage toys. By no means a muscle car with its 92 horsepower, 216 cubic-inch Stovebolt six-cylinder, and three-speed, column-shifted tranny, the Styleline DeLuxe nonetheless sports classic, early fifties lines.
McQueen found he had grown attached to the car, and ultimately bought it after filming had wrapped. Decades later, it was purchased by Rick Harrison of The History Channel’s Pawn Stars, who auctioned the car off in 2013. Owing to its famous provenance, the Styleline DeLuxe fetched $84,000 and set a world record price for a car of its type in the process.
The main muscle car in the movie is a classic 1979 Pontiac Trans Am which Thorson rents for an out-of-town bounty hunt. Black on tan with gold trim and surprisingly lacking the “Screaming Chicken” on the hood, the car nonetheless looks great and is depicted as having far too much power for Thorson to handle.
The Trans Am is involved in one of the movie’s key scenes where it is involved in a chase through a cornfield with a gigantic harvester! Sadly the Pontiac is destroyed and returned to the rental car agency in pieces.
One of the six Trans Ams used in filming was discovered in 2018 quite literally in a barn. As of this time, there’s no word on plans for restoration.
Other cool cars that make appearances in The Hunter include a gold 1971 Buick Skylark, a canary yellow 1967 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, and a 1937 Packard Six. Quite a collection of vintage American iron.
The Hunter is far from being a perfect film for the aforementioned reasons of the characterization and technical flaws. With a better script, and placed in the hands of a more proficient director with a refined vision, it could have been a whole lot better.
This is a shame, since it was McQueen’s swan song, and ultimately not a fitting way to end an illustrious career. Were it not for McQueen’s appearance and a gaggle of cool cars, it would be largely forgettable. It is nonetheless watchable and earns a rating of six out of ten pistons by my eye.
Until next time…