The Wild Stunt That Failed To Save Steve McQueen's Final Film

"The Hunter" was not Steve McQueen's finest hour, but it was his final hour-and-a-half on screen, so it's not as forgettable as it might've been. Written by Ted Leighton and Peter Hyams (who was fired from the project prior to principal photography), the lunk-headed action film is based on the real-life exploits of skip tracer Ralph "Papa" Thorson. It's the kind of role McQueen could nail in his sleep, but, despite being ill (though not yet diagnosed) with the cancer that would claim his life in 1980, he's admirably engaged. The movie might stink, but he does the best he can with poorly written material.

TV-movie specialist Buzz Kulik (who made many a grown man cry with 1971's "Brian's Song") is the credited director, but McQueen reportedly called the shots on set. The film is essentially a stunt showcase, and, as such, delivers a few memorable smash-ups. There's a fun car-versus-combine confrontation in a cornfield, and a spirited foot chase on the El in Chicago. The latter sequence leads to a calamitous chase in a spiraling parking structure, which leans heavily on the film's running joke that Thorson is an awful driver (which, you see, is hilarious because McQueen was an accomplished race car driver). It ain't art, but the climactic stunt is pretty darn nifty.

You will believe a Pontiac can (briefly) fly

The criminal (Thomas Rosales Jr.) is out front in a Pontiac GP, while Thorson trails two levels behind in a commandeered tow truck. The bounty hunter bangs up a few cars along the way, including a very nice Cadillac, before catching up with his prey. The sequence itself is largely perfunctory, cutting from both cars to a zoom-lens angle from a nearby building and, of course, to the interior of the tow truck for some scrunch-faced mugging from McQueen.

The criminal finally runs out of upward real estate, forcing him to turn around and race head-on into Thorson. He foolishly opts to avoid the collision, which results in the Pontiac soaring from the structure into the Chicago River.

As the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips noted in a 2019 tribute:

"In the finished film it's four shots, in slow motion. In the Tribune, reporter Storer Rowley wrote that the impact of car hitting river was like 'a cannon blast ... about 1,500 spectators gasped, gaped, and then swarmed through the stopped rush-hour traffic on Wacker Driver and peered over the rail into the dark waters as the car floated for a few seconds and then disappeared.'"

Steve McQueen speeds on out

The film opened a few months prior to McQueen's death. Paramount likely knew they had a clunker, so they flooded theaters with a trailer that gave away every stunt gag in the movie. "The Hunter" did middling business and got trashed by critics, but, in retrospect, it's a poignant swan song for a rugged leading man who lived fast and drove faster. Unlike macho peers like Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, McQueen wasn't meant to get old. It would've been nice for him to go out on a film worthy of his rough-and-tumble talents, but a hard cut to black feels fitting. One second, McQueen was here, and then suddenly he was gone. He had no time for a prolonged, sentimental farewell. That's a pretty cool exit.