SYNOPSIS: The getaway driver in a botched robbery puts his skills and smarts to the test when he receives shocking orders from an unknown caller.
Set entirely over the course of one night, ‘Wheelman’ sees Frank Grillo’s eponymous character who is caught in the middle of a heist gone wrong. As lean and stripped-down as it gets, writer-director Jeremy Rush’s fast-paced thriller places the recently released ex-con largely behind the wheel of a BMW throughout its entire 82-minute duration, alternating between highly-charged phone calls from two different factions of the Boston underworld and high-speed vehicular chases with his enemies. It may not boast much by way of gratuitous action or violence, but it is still a gripping watch nonetheless, and a perfect star vehicle for the under-appreciated Grillo.
Wasting no time in setting up its premise, ‘Wheelman’ begins with Grillo picking up the getaway vehicle from an auto shop and fetching a pair of antagonistic criminals (one of them played by Shea Whigham) to a bank. Watching the robbers do their thing, he receives a mysterious call from someone claiming to be the person who put together the heist in the first place, instructing him to drive away once the thieves have deposited the loot in the trunk. He has no choice, the person on the phone tells him – his passengers were told to kill him once they reached the drop point. And so he does indeed speed off with more than $200,000 in the back of the car, but at the same time, refuses to play into the hands of this ‘out-of-area’ stranger who will probably end his life once he has the money too.
Instead, Grillo calls his increasingly dubious contractor Clayton (Garrett Dillahunt) for answers, finally confronting the latter by kidnapping him and demanding that he reveal just who ordered the job in the first place. It is then that Grillo realises the ‘shit’ he is in, and without revealing any spoilers, let’s just say that he finds himself unwittingly caught up in a turf war between two rivalling Boston mafia gangs, one of which he does owe his loyalty to for taking care of his wife and 13-year-old daughter Katie (Caitlin Carmichael) while serving time. Though she does seem like an unnecessary distraction at the start, Katie becomes an increasingly prominent and significant presence over the course of the night, entering the narrative in a perfectly organic way that also builds sympathy for Grillo’s character.
To his credit, Rush never forces the character development into the unfolding story; rather, he lets his titular protagonist come into his own slowly, both as a man caught up in a situation that he never wanted to be part of and as a father and husband trying to make things right with his estranged wife Jessica (Wendy Moniz) and Katie. It is a bold move to not have Grillo break out into stereotypical one-man action mode, and for the most part, Rush sustains the tempo and suspense of the movie through the tense conversations as well as the background action captured from around the POV of the vehicle. On his part, Grillo does his usual tough-guy act with more than the usual hint of vulnerability, striking just the right balance between grit and anxiety as he figures just how to put his world right again.
Comparisons will no doubt be made with Nicolas Winding Refy’s ‘Drive’ or Steven Knight’s ‘Locke’, but whatever similarities ‘Wheelman’ has with these two other pictures doesn’t diminish its own merits or the sheer sense of adrenaline that you’ll get from watching it. It is also worthwhile noting that this is Rush’s debut feature, and it is an admirable one indeed that elevates its B-movie conceit with some nice character work. As a final word, it may not belong so well on the big screen because it doesn’t have that many shootouts or action sequences for that matter, but as a Netflix title, it is perfect home entertainment viewing and as good a reason as any for Netflix to keep making them originals.
Review by Gabriel Chong