wheelman review

Allow me to thumb my suspenders and clear the kids off my lawn before I break out this old cliche, but they don’t make ’em like this much anymore.

Wheelman may represent the shifting cinematic landscape of 2017 – it was produced by Netflix and will skip theaters and arrive directly on the streaming service next month – but it’s a straightforward, simple, muscular, and blissfully old school thriller that, much like its leading man, feels like it escaped from 1974. But even when this crime-gone-wrong movie traffics in familiar beats, it does so with a slick confidence and calm-under-fire grace. Making a movie that feels this cool (this effortlessly cool) sometimes feels like a lost art. This is the kind of hardened, macho, dizzyingly entertaining crime movie that gets in, does its job, and gets out without wasting a single second of your precious time. You get the sense that Wheelman respects you, the audience member: it’s not here to beat around the bush. Like a great getaway driver, its focus is squarely on delivering the goods.

Frank Grillo, whose ruggedly handsome face and weary demeanor feels like the ideal macho cocktail mix of Eastwood and McQueen, stars as an unnamed getaway driver whose latest gig quickly goes from “uneasy” to “all hell has broken loose.” And that’s just the first 15 minutes of the movie. The wheelman’s bad night grows more hellish with each new revelation about how profoundly screwed his situation is; when an unhinged crook named “Motherfucker” (played by the always welcome Shea Whigham) is the first and least problem of your very long night, you know things are going to get rough.

If you think that all sounds a tad familiar, you’d be right. But this familiar set-up is an excuse for writer/director Jeremy Rush‘s clever visual approach. Remember Locke, Steven Knight’s surprisingly harrowing 2013 drama that took place in real time while Tom Hardy made a long, emotionally exhausting drive while speaking to several characters on the phone? Well, Wheelman could be called Locke and Loaded. The film opens with Rush’s camera planted firmly within the wheelman’s car and it proceeds to rarely exit the vehicle for the entire movie. When the camera does venture beyond the windows and doors, it is clearly attached to the hood or side of the car. The car is our anchor for the entire film.

That means that a crime thriller set all around Boston manages to feel claustrophobic – even when machine gun fire is exchanged and characters engage in high speed pursuits, we never leave the automobile. We are never granted the reprieve of a wide shot. We are trapped in an increasingly suspicious-looking car with an increasingly desperate driver. Frank Grillo’s phone conversations with friends and enemies and allies prove as harrowing as the mayhem – as the film never leaves the car, his confusion and desperation is our confusion and desperation. By trapping us in the car, Rush forces us to live alongside his protagonist, to experience the night from hell from his point of view. Did you know that being an icy cool getaway driver is really stressful and downright terrifying and that being in a car with so many breakable windows makes you feel like a sitting duck? Wheelman makes you know that, early and often.

But Wheelman is not solely an exercise in style – that style is built to support strong performances and a strong script. Familiar beats are hammered into unfamiliar shapes and every set-up earns a pay-off. When the disparate threads come together and every voice on the phone and adversary on the street find themselves colliding in the breathless final act, you realize you’ve witnessed a magic trick. This is confident pulp, a simple story told with thrilling efficiency by a scarily-talented first time director.

And at the center of it all is Grillo, a phenomenal actor who would have been a movie star a couple decades ago. His unnamed wheelman isn’t an unstoppable killer (he’s no John Wick), but a tired, weary professional who just wants to do his job as quietly and cleanly as possible. And that simple screenplay gently and slowly pulls back the layers on this guy – we may never know his name, but when the credits roll, we know what he’s all about. If anyone deserves an action star resurgence in the Liam Neeson mold (Grillo is 52), it’s him. Wheelman puts him front and center, his face dominating more frames than not, and he owns it.

Wheelman is 82 minutes long. It’s breathless. No scene feels unnecessary and no line of dialogue extemporaneous. It feels like a throwback without feeling like a relic. It’s a blast. Traditional studios don’t make ’em like this much anymore, but they should. You don’t need to teach an old dog new tricks: you understand that they already know all of the tricks.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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About the Author

Jacob Hall is the managing editor of /Film, with previous bylines all over the Internet. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, his pets, and his board game collection.