'Wish Man': Film Review

More backstory than we really needed.

Andrew Steel stars in Theo Davies' inspirational bio-drama about Frank Shankwitz, the Arizona highway patrolman who created the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The story of Frank Shankwitz, a former Arizona motorcycle cop who created the Make-A-Wish Foundation, would seem a promising subject for an uplifting movie. Unfortunately, Theo Davies, the writer-director of Wish Man, didn't seem to trust that it would hold an audience's attention. The resulting biographical drama squanders its compelling central storyline with a lengthy subplot involving crooked cops. Even if the incident is true, it lends an unnecessarily melodramatic tinge to what could have stood on its own as a powerful inspirational story.

Starring, as the publicity materials describe him, "rugged Australian heartthrob" Andrew Steel in the lead role, the film begins with a prologue set in 1952 Illinois when Frank was 10 years old. His parents have separated, and his vengeful mother is determined to keep him away from his loving father. She whisks her son away to Arizona, not bothering to inform his father of their whereabouts, and later tells Frank that his father is dead.

Cut to 28 years later, when the now-grown Frank is an Arizona motorcycle cop who's still clearly emotionally scarred from his troubled upbringing. A surly loner who drinks far too much, he nonetheless takes pride in his job. When he and his volatile partner Tom (Frank Whaley) get involved in an altercation with an aggressive husband and wife during a routine traffic stop, Tom brutally beats the man. An unwitting Frank then finds himself being set up by Tom and a complicit sergeant (Tom Sizemore) to take the fall in the ensuing investigation.

That would seem enough of a storyline to fuel a movie by itself, but it's only peripheral to the main action. Frank, now working with a new, rookie partner (Julian Curtis), is seriously hurt in a motorcycle crash and is even briefly pronounced dead. He makes a miraculously recovery, and is ordered to recuperate at home with the assistance of the department's new secretary Kitty (Kirby Bliss Blanton). It seems a strange assignment for a young woman, but maybe that's how the Arizona Highway Patrol rolls.

Frank's lengthy recovery at the hands of a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love would also seem sufficiently dramatic, but again, it's only a preamble. After returning to duty, Frank is told about Michael, a dying 7-year-old boy whose favorite show is CHiPs and who dreams of meeting a real motorcycle cop. (Hence the cameos by Larry Wilcox and Robert Pine, although, since this film clearly lacked the budget to digitally restore them to their youthful appearances, they're not playing themselves.)

Frank is deeply moved by meeting the little boy, who dies not long afterward. The encounter proves life-changing in another way, as the ensuing publicity attracts the attention of Frank's now-elderly father (Bruce Davison) who has been searching for him for decades. The scene in which they joyfully reunite is the most affecting in the film, made all the more moving by the restrained underplaying of the two actors. (Among the other notable performers making brief but impactful appearances are Dale Dickey, Danny Trejo and Fay Masterson.)

It's only moments before its conclusion that Wish Man finally reaches the point where Frank, inspired by his experience with Michael, comes up with the idea for the foundation. The plot element is handled in cursory fashion, via Frank making a brief public announcement, followed by onscreen graphics informing us of its hundreds of thousands of good deeds.

Wish Man is competently made and never exactly boring, but it's hampered by the fact that its main character isn't nearly as compelling a figure as the film seems to think he is. Or, at least the aspects of his life being dramatized (or fictionalized) aren't. It's good to know that Frank was eventually cleared of the false allegations that nearly ended his career, and that he overcame his personal demons. But it would have been far more gratifying to learn more about the life-changing organization that is the film's reason for being.

Production companies: 333 Films, El Ride Productions, Fresh Cats Productions
Distributor: myCinema
Cast: Andrew Steel, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Robert Pine, Danny Trejo, Bruce Davison, Frank Whaley, Tom Sizemore, Dale Dickey, Larry Wilcox, Fay Masterson, Steven Michael Quezada
Director-screenwriter: Theo Davies
Producers: Theo Davies, Marc Gold, Greg S. Reid
Executive producers: Ricky Brava, Marshall Melton, Kimberly Van Deventer, Steven Van Deventer
Director of photography: Doug Potts
Production designer: Jena Serbu
Editor: Anita Brandt Burgoyne
Composer: Tony Morales
Costume designer: Juliette Lunger
Casting: Helen McCready

Rated PG-13, 107 minutes