If Frank Grillo was looking for a vehicle to showcase his leading man credentials, he certainly found it in 2017’s Wheelman. His move away from bit-part baddie and Avenger-botherer into central performer for this neo-noir thriller – playing a getaway driver attempting to work out who framed him after a bank job goes south – is sublime. So too is the film itself, even if it has remained criminally under the radar since dropping on Netflix.
Barely a year out of prison, Wheelman (he doesn’t give a name, he just drives) utilises his car skills to pay off a mob debt. But when a mystery caller informs him that a pair of thieves he’s taken to a heist are under orders to kill him once they’ve made the drop, Grillo’s ex-con flees with the loot, putting into effect a night of double and triple crossing as he attempts to keep his head above water. To make matters worse, our felon also has domestic issues – chiefly an estranged wife vying for custody of their teenage daughter – and, akin to an Uber driver on surge pricing, his phone is soon off the hook. Things weren’t exactly rosy for Tom Hardy in Locke, but at least he wasn’t dodging machine-gun fire as he sped down the M6.
Later acquired by Netflix, it was a relatively low-budget production which shot for only 19 nights on location in Boston. Debut writer-director Jeremy Rush uses these limitations to his advantage: shooting it so intimately you can almost smell the air freshener – the camera, like Grillo himself, barely leaves the vehicle for the majority of the film’s run time. Far from gimmicky, this set-up pays off in a big way, adding extra menace to proceedings as we see muffled conversations from the wrong side of the windshield and witness car chases as if we were riding shotgun ourselves. During one terrifically choreographed cat-and-mouse sequence which sees Wheelman unable to shake off a motorcyclist, the POV rarely strays outside of this increasingly compromised sedan, keeping the pursuer very much in the rear-view mirror. You never quite know what’s coming.
Even calmer scenes are underpinned with gnawing dread, as, Rush, who knows precisely when to put his foot down and when to ease the gas in terms of storytelling, packs enough action into the mix without ever needing to go flat out. In addition to that, unlike many recent action films which appear keen on stuffing even the most banal of scenes with digital effects, Wheelman feels like a refreshing throwback to actioners of old, a B-movie with brains, invention and authenticity. If nothing else, it punctuates the actual driving with enough quick cuts (shifting gears, thudding brakes, seatbelts clicking) and rip-roaring sound to put most episodes of Top Gear to shame.
For all the technical exploits, however, what draws me back to this film time and time again, like a criminal lured back for the dizzying high of one more job, is Grillo himself; the real MVP, shouldering the film’s emotional load in a way the genre rarely allows. Just as we knew it wouldn’t end well for Dennis Haysbert’s wheelman after hanging up his chef’s apron in Heat, the omens are rarely good for the likes of Wheelman. You sense he knows it too. Because for all the machismo, all that gruffness, there’s a real vulnerability underneath the hood of Grillo’s lawbreaker, his face looking increasingly drained with each phone call as he tries to decipher friend from foe. Flexing his acting muscles in a way we’ve rarely seen in his action career to date, the actor plays it like a man driven out of necessity, as opposed to pride or greed.
Will he solve the puzzle in time to save his life? How will he get the car off the road? And will you be able to watch it without being reminded of Drive? Yep, if there is one other cinematic comparison to be made it’s with Nicolas Winding Refn’s similarly nocturnal neo-noir which had Ryan Gosling in the hot seat; although I’d argue that the crucial difference between these films are how their leads are wired: where Gosling’s boy prince of getaway driving is a well-turned-out psychopath, Frank Grillo’s driver is an ordinary crim who you’d imagine would probably much rather be at home watching Heat.
Slick, intense and technically eye-catching – even without the novelty factor, Wheelman ranks as one of the most pulsating crime dramas of the last decade. You can take that to the bank.
Wheelman is available on Netflix now