Movie Review: 'Wheelman' (2017)

Wheelman Frank Grillo Netflix
Get ready for some high-speed excitement in writer/director Jeremy Rush's vehicular thriller. Taking place within the span of a solitary evening and mostly inside a hot rod, “Wheelman” follows its eponymous central character through a night that never slams on the breaks. Wheelman (Frank Grillo) is a getaway driver, who has been hired to pick up and speed away with a pair of bank robbers after they complete their latest burglary.

While waiting for them to finish their heist, he receives an ominous call from a stranger claiming he has been betrayed and is in imminent danger from the thieves. Urged to flee the scene and abandon them, Wheelman has a choice to make, and it sends him down a rough road.

As a film, “Wheelman” drives through the familiar terrain of three films. Michael Mann’s 1981 classic “Thief," which features a storyline that twists around the traditional paradigm of “honor among thieves.”

The 2002 film “Phone Booth,” which also finds its lead character dealing with threats from an unknown caller. Lastly, there is 2013's “Locke,” wherein a lone driver must sift through a set of precarious personal issues via numerous phone calls in the car.

Unlike the title character in the savvy Tom Hardy starrer, Wheelman interacts with other characters in the flesh. While in another variance, Grillo's Wheelman is plagued by the machinations of his unruly 13-year-old daughter, Katie (a terrific Caitlin Carmichael), whose disrespectful attitude towards her father is appalling to behold.

The movie does not appear to judge Katie, as her dad overlooks her horrendous behavior due to the harrowing circumstances he finds himself in. It also helps that she can leverage his guilt over his criminal career and the impact it has had on her.

Know-it-all teens are a huge gamble for any thriller to take because their arrogant demeanor drags down a genre film's momentum. Take, for example, the recent “Jack Reacher” sequel, which saw a similarly disrespectful teen undermine that film’s titular lead. It is a decision that draws down the film’s fuel as a thriller and distracts the central character from expressing the confidence they should consistently exude.

In the case of “Wheelman,” the inclusion of Katie's character is a more natural fit for the story. With so many adjacent movies to contend with, it is all the more impressive that “Wheelman” manages to carve out some refreshing nuances that set it apart from each of these films mentioned above.

For instance, the film's documentary-style cinematography is craftily intimate, without crossing realistic bounds. It is this voyeuristic approach that makes the film bite with an intense manner of suspense.

Frank Grillo’s raw performance as the title character is another one of the aspects that make “Wheelman” particularly special, as Grillo ramps up the intrigue surrounding an enigmatic character pushed to the brink. It’s a performance that vigorously syncs with the film’s tonality while taking it to new heights.

Likewise, Garret Dillahunt gives another memorable turn as Clayton, the guy who set up Wheelman’s fateful gig. As he has been in so many other performances, Dillahunt is a scene-stealer, whose turn begs for more screen time than he gets.

“Wheelman” opts for a messy and downright graphic realism that makes its "anything-can-happen" atmosphere, nail-bitingly horrifying. A smooth thriller that arrives at its destination without hitting any major speed bumps, “Wheelman” is as compelling navigating its straight-aways, as it is its winding roads.

Rating: 7.5/10

“Wheelman” is currently streaming on Netflix.

[Featured Image by Netflix]