Four Star Rating: ***
Starring: Frank Grillo, Caitlin Carmichael, Garret Dillahunt, Wendy Moniz, Shea Whigham
Director: Jeremy Rush
Screenplay: Jeremy Rush
Music by: Brooke Blair & Will Blair
Cinematographer: Juanmi Azpiroz
Editor: Padraic McKinley
Production Company: The Solution Entertainment Group, Warparty Films
Distributed by: Netflix
Genre: Action, Thriller
Rated: TV-MA - Coarse Language, Mature Themes, Violence, May not be suitable for children 17 and under
Release Date: October 20, 2017
Run Time: 82 minutes
If in one year we can have three movies heavily influenced by the comedy classic, Groundhog Day, and avoid labelling them derivative because they use the concept in different genres, then there should be no problem that Wheelman has a striking similarity to the 2014 Tom Hardy starring dramatic thriller, Locke.
For the less independent movie savvy, Locke was a critical darling and a gem among indy movie lovers that tells the story of a man who is trying to keep his personal and professional life from unravelling after receiving a phone call while he was driving. The entire story is told while Hardy's character is driving his car and the narrative is pushed forward with his various phone calls. For Wheelman, director and screenwriter Jeremy Rush takes an almost identical storytelling approach but sets it in a heist gone bad thriller.
The movie starts in the dark for several seconds (for some it may feel like age), then the lights turn on to reveal that the location is a garage shot from the perspective inside a car. A mechanic then drives the car outside where he gets out of the car while the shot perspective remains in the vehicle while he has an exchange with a man cloaked in the shadows. The man is less than impressed it is a black car with a red trunk because it is now less than inconspicuous. The exchange informs us the man taking over the car has a less than lawful job description that require anonymity, but also shows someone who is exuding confident. There is no need for expository dialogue. It is clear he is getaway driver before the bank robbery goes down. The efficient scene signals that Rush is a director that won't bog down the narrative with unnecessary details and instead keeps things speeding along.
The driver is played by Frank Grillo (Purge & Captain America series) but just like Drive, we never learn his name as he is only referred to as the Wheelman (hence the film's title). The introduction shows both a bare bone storytelling mixed with a slick, assured shooting style, There are no fancy big set pieces because it is almost all shown from inside the car. Cinematographer Juanmi Azpiroz also provides unique shots aroud the moving vehicle that heightens tension but also lets the viewer soak up the atmospheric nighttime streets. The opening credit sequences feels like a 1970s exploitation action throwback with the yellow block letters, shots bathing the viewer in the night lights, and a pounding yet almost soothing film score by Brooke Blair and Will Blair. These technical aspects projects a noirish feel to the story of a troubled getaway driver. The setting creates a place that feels reckless and dangerous where one could be betrayed at any moment or get shot at by a driver enraged over being cut off.
The story is standard formula with Grillo playing a lead who has a dark past that includes some prison time and now owes some dangerous people a sizable debt. He is the typical cool and no-nonsense type that isn't there to do small talk with his accomplices and wants to keep it strictly business. Unfortunately for him, one of the major movie rules is if you try to pull off a heist in the opening act then it needs to go sour. Grillo's character then finds himself trying to sort out if he has been set up while also trying to keep himself alive from the angry crooks that he betrayed. Of course, there has to be family drama as he is just a good guy deep down who is trying to keep things civil with his ex-wife (Wendy Moniz) and maintain some custody of his 13 year old daughter (Cailtin Carmichael). The reality is all the narrative turns and character development has been seen in countless movies before, but Rush recognizes this, keeps everything firing off at a steady and slick pace.
The majority of the movie is Grillo trying discover the truth and manage his life through phone calls, and while none of the dialogue is very distinct or engaging (most of it resorts to shouting matches and cursing -- though it is an understandable stressful night), Grillo's performance elevates the interactions. Most of the movie is Grillo putting on a solo performance, except for two occasions where he shares the car, but he brings huge emotions and drama to his nameless character. His performance reveals a man worn out from a tough few years who is trying to hold himself together so he can be a proper dad for his daughter that he truly loves while also conveying he is a man that won't be pushed around. He balances vulnerability with toughness, and makes us question how much is an act and what is his true character. Grillo takes us on a journey and proves he is worthy of more lead roles in the future.
Jeremy Rush also proves he is a director to watch as he adds some unique perspective shots to add a few thrills to the action sequences. The car chase scenes are kept tight and often either shown from inside the car or with much of the shots taken up with an outside view of the speeding car, and it draws us into the chase and often leaves us disoriented much like the wheelman The quick and varied shots add a new layer of tension and action. There are also a few scenes where Grillo leaves the car including when he enters into a bar to grab the guy who betrayed him. Most of his roughing up of this man is left to our imagination or done through the view of the windshield. It give a feel that we are stuck in that car and adds to a sense of isolation, but also gives some style to scenes that otherwise would feel token and generic.
Wheelman is the kind of movie that is a perfect fit for Netflix and the type of movie that I want them to distribute more often. It is an easy to follow, tightly-paced thriller that takes a few ambitious creative directions that most big studios would shy away from it. The picture is too small scale to meet the tastes of big event movie goers and lacks a big name draw, so it never had a chance to reach the multiplexes. This is a crowd pleasing and accessible thriller that is missed on the big screen, and can help Netflix stand out.