Jeremy Rush’s Wheelman is a “Dad Movie” in the best way; the kind of no bullshit engine-rever that you flip on every Father’s Day during [insert random cable station]’s “All Poppas, All Action” marathon (sounds like a real thing). That might not read like a glowing endorsement, but truly – especially for a filmmaker’s debut – this car-centric thriller speeds into double-crossing criminal territory with hardened poise. Drawing cues from Courtney Solomon’s Getaway, it’s all about the thrill of the chase, burning of rubber and chaos of the moment – ambitiously told from a driver’s perspective.
Intrigued? You should be.
Frank Grillo stars as the titular “Wheelman,” who forgoes birth name usage for precautionary reasons. This, of course, doesn’t stop his contact – Clay (Garret Dillahunt) – from organizing a shady deal that goes belly-up. Grillo finds himself with some $200K in stolen money and multiple unknown numbers giving him conflicting directions, and the night only gets more dangerous once threats against his family are leveraged (ex-wife and daughter). Left with no option, Grillo keeps his foot on the pedal until Clay’s mess can be cleaned up and safety can be assured. It’s anything *but* just another night on the streets for this shift-happy underworld chauffeur.
So, can we talk about Frank Grillo super quick? In respect to Wheelman, he’s the protective parent, ass-kicking 70’s “manly man” and conflicted “antihero” with a heart of gold. As a Hollywood leading man, his name should echo through suburban homes alongside “Statham” and “Stallone.” His ability to translate intensity, tension and a host of related feelings from behind a BMW’s wheel is first-round-knockout good. Scoring laughs after shooting a particularly fiery insult back to his no-name controller and gripping our hearts when sucker-punched by the voice of his captured ex-wife. Grillo is, without argument, one of the best hard-boiled Death Wish kind of “get shit done no matter what” action heroes working today. Few words, stern glances and all results. It’s everything Rush’s furious concrete-spitter needs.
Bless Grillo and co-producer Joe Carnahan – under their new WarParty banner – along with Netflix, who all gave this stuck-to-a-car story its deserving chance. This is where my Getaway comparison above comes into play, as Rush and cinematographer Juan Miguel Azpiroz tail Grillo’s wild ride from the perspective of his 4-wheeled transports. A story told from behind a windshield, screaming towards its conclusion like a bat out of hell.
Be it a “kidnapping” scene complete with an assault-rifle- strapped Grillo entering some bar – shot entirely from his vehicle’s back seat – or speed-limit-breaking escapes from the POV of a car’s bumper. Grillo’s dialogue remains contained to incoming phone calls and a third-act that introduces Katie into the picture has a “wheelgirl in training” feel (more about the father/daughter bonding, nothing to do with criminal upbringings). It’s risky, but Rush’s steady handling never spins wildly out of control.
For those who balk at the idea of Wheelman‘s capability to unfurl a progressing story from such an isolated location (how Locke did), know that Rush pens more than “a robbery gone wrong.” Additives are injected by way of rival gangs, crooked deals and a bagged “lunch” that’s not just a Granny Smith apple. West End gangsters, the “Jazz Man” in Philly, Shea Whigham’s character “Motherfucker” (a particularly chatty “co-worker” of Grillo’s who demands at least a codename between one another). Even Garret Dillahunt’s organizer Clay gets a moment to shine – in Grillo’s car, no less – but it’s still a big enough shock that situational confinement never becomes a bother. Enough to gaze at, with a few “twists” to keep things fresh.
Quite frankly, Wheelman was a jolt of energy during one long, arduous first day of Fantastic Fest fare. Jeremy Rush’s jump from PA to feature director is deserved, with this labor of mechanical love to prove it. A badass, compassionate Grillo, screeching wheels, good-guy-wrong-place survival instincts, and a breezy under-two-hour running time to boot? In an age where streamlined movies are rarely this effective, consider Wheelman a car-crunching “Netflix watch” in the most positive way. Praise be to Grillo, hallowed by thy badassery.
Wheelman is all about speed and timing in the best ways - simple, exciting and for the love of Bronson, can we give Frank Grillo the credit he deserves?