Grillo plays a getaway driver, fresh out of prison and in debt to the mob. He juggles his responsibilities to work and his debts, with the more conventional problems of having a rebellious teen daughter and prickly ex-spouse. Uncomfortable sharing anything other than professional information with his gun-carrying passengers, and particularly keen to withhold his name, we know him only as the Wheelman. While driving for a heist crew, things go predictably wrong and the Wheelman finds himself with a trunk full of money, and a situation going rapidly downhill.
Parallels to Nicholas Winding-Refn’s Drive and Walter Hill’s The Driver are inevitable, due to both the subject matter and the unnamed protagonist. It would be a shame if Wheelman were overlooked as a lesser version of either, for despite its similarities to genre greats, Wheelman is still an excellent, minimalist crime thriller in its own right.
Traditionally, the getaway driver usually gets a bit of a moral pass in the movies. Since he’s not directly involved in the violence of the heist, not shooting anyone or terrorising innocents, the getaway driver can posit himself as the perfect anti-hero. The audience can justify rooting for him since, technically, he only drives a car. In Wheelman, the getaway driver takes an immediate dislike to the gunmen, and we are soon introduced to his moral code and sense of obligation. We’re on his side as we witness events unfold outside of his control.
Wheelman is set almost entirely inside the car and it is the role of the audience to be a passenger. As events escalate, we are literally along for the ride, seated in back. This works exceedingly well as stylistic device, but the movie is never hampered by it, because when it needs to Wheelman does break away from the car point-of-view, ensuring proceedings never feel gimmicky.
The action sequences are finely tuned. Car chases and gunfights keep the engine ticking over as we tear around in the dark of the city streets. The tension is ramped up by the anxiety-provoking simplicity of waiting for a phone call, which is in turn interrupted by bouts of explosive aggression.
Where Wheelman really works is in Grillo’s excellent performance, making us root for this driver despite him being a character we may not sympathise with in the real world. Wheelman sees Grillo mostly acting against a telephone and it’s not unlike Tom Hardy’s Locke in that respect – except with added guns and car chases.
In addition to Grillo, Caitlin Carmichael turns in a believable performance as his daughter Katie – full of teenage irritation and love for her family. And Garret Dillahunt delivers an excellently slimey turn as the Wheelman’s weak-kneed buddy, Clay.
With a tight plot and short run time, Wheelman is lean and rangy. First-time feature writer-director (and the appropriately named) Jeremy Rush knows exactly what he’s after and does not hesitate to get it. Despite the familiarity, Wheelman uses its formula to great effect, giving us some genuinely surprising developments, tightly wound action, and at the end of it all, a movie more than worthy of your time.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
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