Director: Jeremy Rush
Writer: Jeremy Rush
Release Date: October 20, 2017
If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive had sex with Steven Knight’s Locke, their baby would probably look a lot like Wheelman – a moody, low-budget Netflix Original starring Frank Grillo as a put-upon getaway driver who gets in over his head.
Care to elaborate?
Grillo plays a nameless ex-con who moonlights as a wheelman for the Boston mob in repayment for their protection of his wife (Wendy Moniz) and 13-year-old daughter, Katie (Caitlin Carmichael), while he was in prison. This isn’t entirely dissimilar from Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive, who was also an anonymous driver for organised crime. In both films, the hero ends up on the run through no fault of their own. Both are slow, character-driven dramas that refuse to rely too heavily on traditional action-movie elements, only occasionally using chases or bursts of sudden violence to raise the mortal stakes. Wheelman’s gimmick, though, is that the camera almost never leaves the car. It’s usually positioned either on the dashboard, looking in, or on the back seat, looking out, which is reminiscent of the car-confined phone-tennis of Locke, which starred Tom Hardy as a family man with a lot of calls to make.
So it’s a copycat film?
Not really, no. Wheelman pilfers elements from other films, sure, and particularly from those two, but it has a scuzzy style that’s all its own; a mix of hardboiled neo-noir melodrama and lean, minimalistic action that speeds by quickly and efficiently without getting bogged down by its own ambition. It’s obviously inferior to Drive, which is a masterpiece, but it’s a better film that Locke, mostly because it recognises when to step out from behind the wheel and bend the stylistic rules it has set for itself. It also helps that Grillo’s character is more arresting than the one Hardy played; his lines are sharper, more clearly defined, and his problems have real immediacy. If nothing else, Wheelman is a perfect fit for Grillo, the grizzled tough-guy who most impressed me in the second and third Purge films.
What’s interesting about the character?
Nothing, at first. He’s the usual oxymoronic criminal good guy; to do right by his family, he has to do wrong by the law. He’s curt and no-nonsense and gets riled up by incompetence and nosey bank robbers who ask too many questions about him. But he’s a professional with a simmering resentment for his profession, and Grillo can really play that. Which makes it all the better – for us – when he’s contacted in the middle of a job by a stranger, who informs him that his gun-toting passengers plan to kill him after the escape. The only way out of the situation, for now, is to wait until the robbers have deposited the loot in the trunk, and then speed off without them. This he does, with $200,000 of someone else’s money in the car, and no idea who to trust, or how and why he’s being set up.
Ah. That is interesting.
This is all complicated by multiple competing parties vying for Grillo’s attention: the stranger, whose number is listed only as “out of area”: the hopeless contractor (Garrett Dillahunt) who recruited Grillo for the job; an angry mobster who claims ownership of that job and, by extension, the money; and Grillo’s wife and daughter, who’re doing the usual wife and daughter things, such as never listening and talking over him in times of crisis.
That last one feels a bit superfluous, but it doesn’t take long for Grillo and Carmichael’s credible father-daughter relationship to grow progressively more important, in a way that’s relatively clichéd, but that also allows for relatable, naturalistic dialogue, such as the bit when Grillo needs to ask his wife for an impromptu favour amid her ranting, and another where he has to convince Katie to drive off in his car despite having told her earlier in the film that if she left the house she would be “grounded for the rest of her life.” This is the kind of thing I like, as it’s the way conversations with the women in my life tend to go.
Does the camera gimmick hurt the film?
On the contrary, it actually builds an intimacy that keeps the audience complicit in Grillo’s anger and bewilderment. Our being crammed in the BMW with him for such long stretches makes it easy to empathize; his emotional oscillations are like the car’s speedometer, flitting from one extreme to the other. Grillo handles this as assuredly as writer-director Jeremy Rush handles the dollops of action, most seen through bullet-cracked windscreens and mirror reflections. There isn’t much of it, but that’s all the better; what’s there lands with the necessary jolts to liven up what is already a short, high-speed drama.
It’s a second-hand idea, but Wheelman gets a lot of mileage out of it. Check this one out.
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