Jeremy Renner is developing a Steve McQueen biopic with James ("Two Lovers") Gray as his screenwriter and a music-video director named Ian Zacharias as his director. Renner's performances in "The Town" and "The Hurt Locker" show he has the chops to play a McQueen-like action antihero. (Whether he can do the McQueen of "The Sand Pebbles" or "Love with a Proper Stranger" remains to be seen.) But the best news is that, however this film turns out, it has already triggered fresh interest in one of America's most original movie actors.
McQueen retooled the American man of action for the mid-twentieth century. He played dangerous games with reflexive grace and was a whiz at handling risky props. He was so completely credible in gritty roles because he made you feel that he had sweat and dust on his neck and behind his ears.
He broke through to film stardom in John Sturges's "The Magnificent Seven," the stirring 1960 Western remake of Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai." McQueen, as a wily rifleman, steals scenes with a cascade of graceful minimalist gestures, whether he's pumping lead into his gun or adjusting for glare with a cock of his cowboy hat. Sturges then made McQueen a superstar in the 1963 P.O.W. adventure, "The Great Escape." As one of the few Yankee officers in a Nazi prison camp, McQueen scuttles through the film in a battered flight jacket and a worn sweatshirt. Whether he's banging a baseball against the wall of an isolation cell to keep his sanity or gunning his motorcycle in full view of miles of barbed wire, McQueen is casual, pragmatic, and disrespectful but still very much a hero.
McQueen played his most iconic character in Peter Yates's "Bullitt," (1968), revealing his inner Bogart as an idealistic San Francisco police lieutenant with a clipped, sardonic manner. And he broke type, gloriously, as the larcenous Boston millionaire in Norman Jewison's "The Thomas Crown Affair" (also 1968). He savored every change in evening wear as if he were Gatsby, and audiences couldn't help falling in love with the pose. There was more than a little truth to that pose: McQueen, like Gatsby, was born in the Midwest, and after a stint in a California reform school and a tour in the Marines he started to make his fortune in the East, on the New York stage.
McQueen delivered his greatest performance in Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner," as a past-his-prime rodeo star. He displays just enough of his character's vanity and vestigial power to make his pain and failure sting. His kicked-in-the-ribs saddle tramp ranks with Paul Newman's punch-drunk hockey player in "Slap Shot" as one of the great athletic antiheroes. Whenever McQueen had material this strong, he proved to be an actor down to his bones.