When Michael Bay considered directing Larry Cohen’s Phone Booth script, he notoriously noted, “this is great, but when the fuck do we get out of the phone booth?” It’s hard not to wonder if viewers will feel the same way while watching Jeremy Rush’s Wheelman, which is ostensibly an entire car chase movie delivered from the interior of a beat up BMW. Were one to boil the picture down to an elevator pitch: “Locke meets Drive”; a chatty, sub-Mametian deconstruction of the heist yarn that works pretty well for the most part, while simultaneously violating Walter Hill’s tried and true “show don’t tell” ethos for the entire action genre.
Our titular scumbag chauffer (Frank Grillo) is having a rough night. The two thugs he’s picked up to pull a bank job (one of which is a mouthy Shea Whigham) won’t stop asking for his name, and right after he drops them off at their target, a mysterious handler (the single monikered Ben Affleck favorite, Slaine) instructs him to leave the goons behind as soon as they toss their freshly acquired bag of cash in his trunk. Now, it’s a harried set of instructions, as the wheelman frantically tries to get the buddy who set up the job (Garret Dillahunt) on the phone to explain just what the fuck is going down, all while hoping his thirteen-year-old brat of a daughter (Caitlin Carmichael) isn’t banging her new older boyfriend while he’s out risking his neck. We’re riding shotgun with a man running out of time, because if he doesn’t deliver, his ex-wife (Wendy Moniz) might not make it to morning.
Frank Grillo is a fascinating performer; an obvious action star in the making, he also possesses the lumpy soul of an everyman character actor. Grillo could just as easily be the hot guy who comes over to fix the siding on your house, as he is to man a getaway vehicle after an underworld job. To his credit, the buff performer makes the best out of Rush’s repetitive, foul-mouthed dialogue, which unfortunately borders on juvenilia thanks to the frequency of its F-words. But there’s something about Grillo’s face – those angular cheeks and deep, brown eyes, that’s utterly mesmerizing. He could spit these staccato bursts of tough guy dialogue in his sleep, all while we try and figure out just how the hell he always gets his hair to look that goddamn good. Without him, Wheelman would fall flat on its greasy mug, as either a stylistic or acting exercise.
Meanwhile, as neat as the high concept of the picture is, the single location also cramps the movie visually at times. Once the shit hits the fan, and our man behind the wheel realizes he’s being tailed by a nefarious motorcyclist, the adrenaline can only flow to a certain extent, as we rarely see beyond what the limited camera mounts on the car allow. DP Juan Miguel Azpiroz (The Gunman) does his damnedest to try and replicate the cold, gleaming iridescence of a '90s Michael Mann picture, but there just aren’t enough set ups to create a palpable sense of excitement once the movie kicks into high gear (though, to be fair, there are two moments of steel on steel impact that are genuinely jarring). Thankfully, there are enough eventful pit stops (including a truly gruesome expositional interlude with Dillahunt) for us to reset and focus on the rather exceptional character work that keeps the narrative barreling forward.
Wheelman is a movie slightly at war with itself. It’s an anti-action picture that still attempts to commit to the genre trappings it's visually toying with. At the same time, the acting and storytelling beats are sound enough to keep us engaged the entire way, even when we agree with Bay’s crudely stated wish to rid ourselves of this claustrophobic mechanical tomb. Thankfully, Will and Brooke Blair provide enough ambient atmospherics that the soundtrack to this brisk joyride often takes on an ethereal air. Jeremy Rush is obviously a talented filmmaker with an experimental streak running to his core (not to mention a knack for script structure). Next time, it might just work in his favor to let us out of the vehicle, so we can experience a new bullet-riddled environment.