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Doc plays up McQueen's cool, ignores the toxic

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There's cool, and then there's cool.

And then there's Steve McQueen.

The legendary actor's last movie was released in 1980, the same year he died at age 50, so there are a couple of generations of movie-goers out there for whom McQueen is little more than a nostalgic Hollywood reference and a name-drop in a Sheryl Crow song.

But if you love movies and you don't know Steve McQueen, you really should take the time to educate yourself. And a good starting point is tonight at 8 on Spike TV, with the première of the bio-documentary I Am Steve McQueen, followed by a screening of his most memorable big-screen thriller, Bullitt.

I Am Steve McQueen, which was directed by Jeff Renroe and narrated by Robert Downey Jr., is a somewhat whitewashed celebration of the life and career of the actor, who escaped a horrifically difficult childhood and a rather troubled youth to become one of Hollywood's most charismatic and bankable leading men.

The film, which unfolds in mostly chronological order, features interviews with many of McQueen's showbiz contemporaries, as well as several family members, including all three of the actor's wives (Neile Adams, Ali McGraw and Barbara Minty), son Chad and a couple of grandchildren.

They share fond memories and offer gushing tributes to McQueen's tenacity and talent, but the darker aspects of the performer's life are dealt with in only the most passing fashion.

The product of a broken home and an abusive childhood, McQueen seemed destined for a life spent either on the street or behind bars. A stint in the Los Angeles reformatory Boys Republic and enlistment in the U.S. Marine Corps turned things in the right direction, and after being discharged from the corps at age 20, McQueen headed to New York to study acting.

Success was slow in coming, but when he finally caught his first big break -- in Hollywood, as star of the surprisingly successful 1958 horror flick The Blob -- McQueen was ready to capitalize.

His B-movie breakthrough landed him the starring role in the TV western Wanted: Dead or Alive, and he parlayed that high-profile job into a co-starring role alongside Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn in the 1960 feature The Magnificent Seven.

The documentary includes some priceless footage of McQueen engaging in scene-stealing antics while sharing the screen with Brynner, who was notoriously competitive and didn't take kindly to being upstaged by someone he considered to be an underling.

McQueen's trickery worked; he stole every scene that he was in, and after The Magnificent Seven, Hollywood regarded him as leading-man material. Huge hits, including The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid, The Sand Pebbles, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway and Papillon, followed.

Much is said about McQueen's brilliance as an actor and his talent as a racer of cars and motorcyles; on the other hand, McQueen's difficult on-set reputation, serial womanizing and self-destructive tendencies are mostly glossed over, with some of the people most directly affected by them all but defending his toxic behaviour.

It's far from a complete picture, but I Am Steve McQueen is an adequate introduction for those who aren't familiar with his complex life and considerable screen catalogue. And if you do choose to tune in, do yourself a favour and stick around for Bullitt, which airs immediately following the documentary. In addition to ably showcasing McQueen's magnetic screen presence, it also includes the 11-minute car chase through the streets of San Francisco that set the standard for all onscreen automotive action that has followed. Hands down, still the best chase scene in movie history.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2014 C6

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