“Speed and timing. That’s what this is about.”
You’re bound to see a good number of reviewers compare Wheelman to a Michael Mann film in the style of Locke. It’s a surface comparison that’s pretty obvious to anyone that’s paid attention to film for the past decade (subbing in Mann for Nic Refn is acceptable too). No need to bury that in the lede, it’s a heist movie that sits in a car for almost the entire runtime.
Frank Grillo plays the titular getaway driver and just like the driver in Drive, he doesn’t want to talk to his crew in the back seat and eventually, communications break and the whole heist goes haywire. He’s told by an unknown caller from an out of state number that Grillo’s been ordered to be killed by the heist crew, and driving away with the money is his only option for survival.
The anonymous caller on the end of the line throws more screws into the plan our wheelman desperately tries to piece together with his good-for-nothing heist coordinator Clay (Garret Dillahunt). Adding to the drama, his 13-year-old daughter Katie is defying his order and dating a 17-year-old piece of work and may also go into full custody with her mother (Wendy Moniz).
Still, it avoids melodrama as most of the focus stays with the getaway car, a black BMW with a red trunk that coupled with a GPS in the duffle of money constantly gives away the car’s location at all times.
While the trunk and GPS seem like terrible plot points, they lead to some of the most thrilling moments of the film. As Grillo is chased down by his abandoned crew or the mob, freshman director and writer Jeremy Rush turns Wheelman the movie into Wheelman the video game, putting Grillo through a series of boss levels, each more thrilling than the last.
That’s largely due to a great focus on editing, and the sound design in particular. Borrowing a sound mixer from the Oscar-winning Hacksaw Ridge sound design team, every frame is packed for a true explosion of the senses in combo with the tight camerawork to keep the single location as exciting as possible.
But the camera’s tether to Frank Grillo’s car or his face for the majority of the film isn’t the reason succeeds. The first half of the film only occasionally hits a high gear largely thanks to Grillo’s commanding presence. Overdrive kicks in in the closing act when the scenery changes locations to go where no car chase film has gone before.
Keeping a camera on a sure thing actor like Grillo isn’t bold. It helps cement Grillo as a should-be superstar but bold, it is not, at least not in comparison to a later development. Putting a 13-year-old behind the wheel, however, that’s exhilarating.
It’s not just a stunt, either. Thematically, Grillo handing the wheel over to Katie makes this not a heist movie but a father-daughter story under the guise of a heist film. Really, that’s the key to a successful driving film. Not the continuity of stick shifts or the violence, it’s the personal stakes that exist within the world.
Drive grounded its nameless driver with an innocent romance saving the damsel in distress from an ex-con. Wheelman plays the opposite card with an ex-con redeeming himself on the most unlikely of terms. It’s a thrill from top to bottom.
Wheelman will release on Netflix on October 20.