Movie Review – Wheelman
Director : Jeremy Rush
Year Of Release : 2017
Principal Cast : Frank Grillo, Garret Dillahunt, Shea Wigham, Caitlin Carmichael, Wendy Moniz, Slaine.
Approx Running Time : 82 Minutes
Synopsis: A getaway driver for a bank robbery realizes he has been double crossed and races to find out who betrayed him.
Produced by Joe Carnahan (The Grey, The A-Team), Jeremy Rush’s Wheelman is a grungy, electrifying dramatic thriller filmed almost entirely as a “man in a box” scenario that delivers. Starring Frank Grillo, an actor now most assuredly on my radar, Wheelman’s urban grit and violent modus operandi is brilliantly staged and written, and constantly edgy to the point you’re often forgetting to breathe, as Grillo’s titular getaway driver races the clock to find out who betrayed him on his last job. Grillo makes an engaging anti-hero, and the scenario feels a touch too similar to Locke, a car-bound film starring Tom Hardy, to feel entirely original, but for enthusiasts of intrigue and pulsating mystery and action, Wheelman will hit all the marks with comfortable ease.
An unnamed getaway driver (Grillo), transports two bank robbers to their heist, but before they return he is ordered to drive off by a mysterious blocked caller on his phone. Trying to contact his handler to sort the mix-up out, the Wheelman gradually begins to realise he’s been set up and betrayed, first by associate Clay (Garret Dillahunt) and then by Clay’s contact, the Handler (John Cenatiempo). Meanwhile, the Wheelman’s daughter Katie (Caitlen Carmichael) is unwittingly the pawn in the criminal schemes of the Handler, and as he races through the city trying to stop his family being hurt, the Wheelman must come up with a plan that will bring an end to his life of crime.
Jeremy Rush’s film – he directs his own screenplay in what IMDb suggests is his mainstream feature debut – is pure dynamite. What it lacks in subtlety it counterbalances with raw muscularity, a breakout film that delivers requisite tension mixed with pulsating thrills, a cool mix of Tarantino’s grimy realism and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. Set for the majority of its runtime within Grillo’s getaway vehicle, as it prowls the city streets at night, as it takes injury and accident in its stride, the film’s progressively tightening razor-wire stakes drag the viewer into an uncomfortable position of siding with a man whose character is best described as “flaky” and at worst desperate. Grillo’s eponymous Wheelman is trying to rebuild his life after a stretch in prison, and his underworld life threatens to cross over into his personal life, leveraging his freedom with a vaguely Mad Max-esque life on the run. Sympathetic hero, sure, but deadbeat dad, not at all.
Grillo’s on-screen daughter, Caitlin Carmichael, is your typical 13-year-old insolent type, hating her father for abandoning her while he served time, and the Wheelman’s estranged wife (Grillo’s real-life wife, Wendy Moniz) provides plenty of backstage grist to the central character’s personal dilemma, while the film’s referencing of vaguely mafia-esque underworld figures is knowing and intelligent. There’s no dumbing-down for the audience, that’s for sure, although depth isn’t really the focus of Wheelman’s central narrative. The film’s core idea is simply to grind itself into a wrung wire of tension, unwilling to let go of the Wheelman’s predicament until it draws blood achieving its end.
The film’s use of perspective is perhaps its most interesting angle. Throughout the film the camera stays within, or at most barely outside, the two cars Grillo’s character drives, and even external events are shows through windows and the windscreen, giving the claustrophobic ratcheting tension a sense of helplessness. This helplessness, this sense of isolation towards its main character, drives (ha!) the energy the film presents as it refuses to allow context in its scenario: everything we learn, we learn at the same time as the Wheelman, and his reactions are our reactions. It turns what might have been a fairly pedestrian B-movie into a damn fine B-movie that subverts expectation. All I can say is that Wheelman must have been a pain to pull off technically, but I’m mighty glad they persevered.
Wheelman has its cool idea and it nails the presentation: Grillo’s sweaty, shouty performance is on-point, while Jeremy Rush’s direction – one suspects he’s had this idea gestating for a while – is electric, moody, atmospheric and precise. No moment of Wheelman goes to waste, that’s what’s so amazing here. The film runs a relatively brief 80 minutes and change, and works its set-up and payoff with a panache I’ve not seen since Blomkamp’s District 9. Yeah, I rate Rush’s film sense here that highly – he’s a director to watch, and if he can deliver a movie as good as his mainstream debut here again, then I’ll be delighted. Wheelman is grindhouse B-movie perfection.