If your name is Steve McQueen and you open a $40 million movie with a car chase, you'd better not crash and burn. After all, the name McQueen has been nearly synonymous with high-speed pursuit ever since the iconic American star of 1968's Bullitt careened a Mustang through the hilly streets of San Francisco. To the credit of British director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave; Shame), the opening sequence of Widows hits on all cylinders.
The film begins in flashback, with a close-up of master thief Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), sharing a passionate kiss. Cut to an in-progress car chase, with Harry and his gang fleeing from the cops in a panel van after a botched $2 million robbery. Cornered in a warehouse, the ensuing gunfight ends in fiery explosion, with the van somersaulting toward the camera.
Besides the grief of losing a spouse, another hardship confronts Veronica and the other widows whose husbands died in the crash: the $2 million belonged to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), an African American crime boss and political hopeful, who has a trigger-happy brother (the superbly menacing Daniel Kaluuya). Manning needs the stolen dough to bankroll his campaign against an equally corrupt Irish American political machine in an alderman's race on Chicago's South Side. As fate would have it, though, Harry left Veronica a notebook containing plans for a $5 million heist that requires the services of four people — which just so happens to be the number of grieving widows.
That complicated plot description sums up a movie whose ambitions outweigh its execution. Cowritten by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and anchored by Davis' commanding lead performance, Widows functions on one level as a feminist revamp of the heist genre. "We have three days to look and move like a team of men. The best thing we have going for us is being who are," Veronica tells her uncertain crew, before delivering the iconic punchline, "because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off."
The problem is that the heist itself isn't sufficiently complex to satisfy the buildup. And though an excellent performance by Elizabeth Debicki provides much-needed comic relief, McQueen takes the material too seriously to approach the shaggy-dog pleasures of a caper comedy like Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket.
The film's best shot is its most incongruous. As smarmy politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) steps into his limo following a politically calculated speech-cum-photo-op in a poor black neighborhood, he complains to an aide about an overly aggressive reporter. Yet the camera, mounted on the hood of the car, never lets us see the faces of the actors, which are obscured by the windshield's glare. Instead, we watch the changing landscape as the car pulls up to Mulligan's campaign headquarters at a gated mansion just minutes later.
In one deft shot, McQueen captures the economic disparities of a city notorious for racially charged politics. But then the movie bounces back to the heist plot, and the moment feels as if it were grafted on from a separate film examining the intersection of crime and politics in the Windy City.
The experience of watching Widows is like frequently changing channels between a grittier version of Ocean's Eight and a watered-down episode from the third season of "The Wire." Like a foiled robbery, it has great promise, but it ultimately fails to deliver the goods.