A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Steve McQueen is sometimes criticized for only playing "himself" in the movies. This misses the boat, I think. Stars like McQueen, Bogart, Wayne or Newman aren't primarily actors, but presences. They have a myth, a personal legend they've built up in our minds during many movies, and when they try to play against that image it usually looks phony.
McQueen was a bomb as Thomas Crown, for example, because the character clashed with McQueen's own personality. But McQueen is great in "Bullitt," and the movie is great, because director Peter Yates understands the McQueen image and works within it. He winds up with about the best action movie of recent years.
McQueen plays a San Francisco cop assigned as bodyguard to a syndicate witness. The witness gets shotgunned -- in the most brutally direct 10 seconds of film I can remember -- and McQueen becomes a political football. Robert Vaughn (better than usual) is the politician who puts the heat on, and it's up to McQueen to hide the victim's body until he can untangle the case.
It's a very tangled case, too. The beautiful thing is that Yates and his writers keen everything straight. There's nothing worse than a complicated plot that loses track of itself (as in "The Lady in Cement," which I defy anyone to explain).