‘Wheelman’ Review: Frank Grillo’s Heist Film Takes a Wrong Turn
As a visual exercise, Wheelman is interesting: The camera never leaves the getaway car(s) driven by Frank Grillo’s title character. It is constantly filming the action from the backseat or its exterior. That offers a unique, rarely-seen perspective, but it’s ultimately wasted on a film that fails to deliver any actual excitement — exceptionally disappointing for a film produced by Joe Carnahan, a director who knows a thing or two about crafting engaging thrillers.
It’s also disappointing because Grillo is so consistently watchable; even his worst films are better because he’s in them. Wheelman falls into that category, but even Grillo’s subtle touches can’t elevate this incredibly basic concept beyond an admittedly cool visual conceit. Then again, you can’t fault first time director (and former PA) Jeremy Rush for Netflix’s decision to release this film in a year when Edgar Wright already delivered such a novel spin on the classic heist formula.
Wheelman centers on Grillo’s driver, a man trying to get his life back together and be a good father to his 13-year-old daughter after a stint in prison. He’s clearly doing a great job of it by working as a getaway driver for the local mob that took care of his family while he was away. The narrative kicks off pretty quickly when Grillo’s guy delivers a pair of antagonistic robbers to a bank and simultaneously receives a mysterious phone call instructing him to leave them behind because they’ve been ordered to kill him at the drop point. Grillo buys it because the voice on the other end of the line knows more things about him than it should.
It’s a familiar tale: A heist gone wrong, a criminal double-cross, and a man unable (and maybe unwilling) to disengage from a life he needs to leave behind. The only thing that really sets Wheelman apart is its visual aesthetic, which, to its credit, never feels like a cheap gimmick. The film is well-made from top to bottom, particularly the sequences shot from the car’s exterior, which forces an inherently riveting perspective on the audience. That approach lends the film a certain feeling of claustrophobia, of being figuratively chained to this car — unable to escape but held in its thrall, much like Grillo’s driver.
But much of Wheelman’s plot is similar to Steven Knight’s Locke, the entirety of which is set in a car where Tom Hardy’s family man receives a series of mysterious calls that threaten to upend his life. Somehow, a film in which Tom Hardy spends an inordinate amount of time discussing the concrete business is more compelling than one in which noted badass Frank Grillo plays a getaway driver trying to figure out who double-crossed him and to what end.
That end involves his aforementioned daughter, who contributes to the film’s occasional moments of humor with tense phone calls about her boyfriend. The relationship with her father offers some very cool potential for the film’s climax, when she finally shows up, but it’s ultimately wasted. Also wasted is Shea Whigham, who is criminally underused in films so frequently that it’s become something of a joke in its own right. Here he plays a robber named “Motherf—er,” which sounds and should be way more awesome than his three minutes of screen time. Garret Dillahunt has a slightly more expanded role that lends Wheelman its most visceral scene — one that artfully shifts between dark comedy and horror in the span of three seconds.
It’s these little grace notes that make Wheelman watchable — like the scene in which Grillo, believing he’s finally gained the upper hand after a particularly heated phone call, smugly nods to himself in a way that’s self-congratulatory. He doesn’t smile, or say anything out loud; he communicates this one feeling in such a subtle way that it’s more hilarious than any one-liner that might have been attached to it. But these moments provide the film’s only entertainment. The rest is waiting for a big, showy car chase or an action centerpiece that never really comes. Mostly, Wheelman is just fine. Unfortunately, being just fine is a cinematic crime all its own.
Wheelman premieres on Netflix on October 20.