A close-quarters crime film whose protagonist stays behind the wheel but is rarely in the driver’s seat, Wheelman gives fan-favorite tough guy Frank Grillo a chance to open up in a starring vehicle. The directing debut of Jeremy Rush, this solid genre pic plays like a pulpy cousin to Steven Knight’s 2013 Locke, less formally rigorous but more inviting. It will be a welcome diversion for those who stumble across it on Netflix, where it debuts next month, and should help raise its lead’s profile in the genre world.
Grillo plays the eponymous character, who makes his case for anonymity in a nice scene-setting exchange: Hired to drive two bank robbers he doesn’t know to the scene of their crime, he bristles when a talkative felon (Shea Whigham) wants to play getting-to-know-you. The men find a testosterone-soaked detente before the gunmen exit the car and go rob the bank, at which point the words “to the scene” in the previous sentence come into play: A mysterious man claiming to be the heist’s organizer calls getaway driver and insists that, once the thieves deposit the loot in his trunk, he must speed away and leave them in the parking lot. While cops arrive to arrest them, the wheelman is to take the money to a drop location nearby.
Saddled with the kind of debts and secrets that always make men blackmail-able in films like this, Grillo’s character does as instructed, up to a point. Suspicious of the “Out of Area” caller who keeps giving him instructions, he spends the film’s midsection juggling these calls with others to the man who hired him, trying to figure out whose bidding he should be doing. Much “who’s doublecrossing who?” ensues, and if the dialogue flags occasionally, there’s always background action to contend with. Like the mysterious motorcyclist tailing our man, whose pursuit ends spectacularly.
More important to the film than the underworld drama is a plotline involving Grillo’s teenaged daughter. In his first calls with Katie, who is home alone with an untrustworthy boyfriend, the parenting angle plays like comic relief: Here I am about to steal a quarter-million dollars, and I have to deal with this? But Rush is more invested in the relationship than he initially seems to be, and Katie (veteran child actor Caitlin Carmichael) proves enjoyably essential to the picture’s third act.
As does a hot vintage Porsche, a nice step up from the intentionally “nondescript” car Grillo drives for most of the film. The movie’s tight framing and economy of angles means Wheelman‘s chases aren’t as thrilling as they might have been, but that Porsche helps set things straight with chase-movie fans in the end.
Production companies: Solution Entertainment Group, WarParty Films
Cast: Frank Grillo, Caitlin Carmichael, Garret Dillahunt, Shea Whigham
Director-screenwriter: Jeremy Rush
Producers: Frank Grillo, Joe Carnahan, Myles Nestel
Executive producers: J. Todd Harris, Chady Mattar, Scott Silver
Director of photography: Juan Miguel Azpiroz
Production designer: Debbie Cutler
Costume designer: Virginia Johnson
Editor: Padraic McKinley
Composers: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Casting director: Angela Peri
Venue: Fantastic Fest