Normally we write all these Fantastic Fest reviews about movies you won’t see for quite a while, if you get to see them at all. Wheelman isn’t one of those. It’s hitting Netflix October 20, so in less than a month you can likely watch this from the comforts of your home. Naked if you want; I don’t know your life.
And if you’re someone who perks up at the idea of Frank Grillo starring in a crime film that (for the most part) confines him in a BMW as he navigates his way through a Very Bad Night, I honestly can’t imagine being disappointed by this one.
Written and directed by newcomer Jeremy Rush - someone I am now definitely keeping an eye out for - Wheelman is less an action film and more a straight-up thriller. Grillo plays a getaway driver who finds himself in a horrible situation when his latest job puts him in the middle of a much bigger situation that threatens not only his life but the lives of his ex-wife and 13-year-old daughter. For much of the running time, we’re not able to see the whole spectrum of what he’s up against because we never get any perspective other than his, and that info largely comes through his many, many cell phone calls. If that makes this sounds a bit like a grittier version of Locke, Hello! Welcome to why this movie kicks so much ass.
Wheelman extends a little further than Locke, however. Other actors are involved, for instance, such as Garret Dillahunt and Shea Whigham. Both are exceptional in their surprisingly small roles.
But even with that support, this is still the Frank Grillo show. The guy has his fans; I’m one of them, but I’ve never seen him do so much, so well, in a film before. This is a true starring role for him, and he acts his ass off rather than go for vanity. Rush makes Grillo seem small and vulnerable in his little car as a violent, chaotic situation closes in on him. Grillo’s character is rarely in control and you see his worry even as he tries to keep a cool head. It’s a complicated performance that proves once and for all Grillo’s talent. He’s far more than just a generic action guy here.
About the action, Wheelman keeps it surprisingly sparse. I hesitate to even call it an action film. And for a film about a getaway driver, it has very little in the form of car chases. But Rush knows how to make these things count when the time comes. When Wheelman goes for it, it succeeds not for how big it gets but for the patience it displays getting there.
Rush shows so much talent here, as both a writer and director. It’s no easy thing to set a thriller in a setting as small as a car, but he manages to pull it off. On top of that, one subplot (Grillo has to deal with all this crime stuff while also making sure his daughter isn’t sleeping with her boyfriend) gets paid off well enough to make me feel bad for disliking the thread before knowing how it would end up.
Wheelman’s main strength is its minimalism, but I worry it’s not likely to get a lot of attention when it comes out. This is kind of a novelty movie. But it is so great, and movies seem to get forgotten on Netflix so easily, that I will be sad if people don’t give this one a chance when it hits next month. It’s small, but it is also a very worthy genre entry. I highly recommend not missing it.