‘Wheelman’ Review: Netflix Does ‘Baby Driver’ Without the Tunes

Chris Tilly
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of 5
Review Essentials
  • Seriously tense
  • Well choreographed action
  • Likeable anti-hero protagonist
  • Terrific Frank Grillo performance

What is Wheelman?

A getaway driver — whom we only know as ‘Wheelman’ — agrees to take a pair of thieves to and from a bank robbery. But the deal goes bad, and Wheelman finds himself on the run, with a car-full of money, and facing a race against time to figure out who double-crossed him.

Who is Wheelman?

Frank Grillo should be a movie star. The guy delivered an Oscar-worthy performance in The Grey, appeared in multiple Marvel movies as Crossbones, and even has his own hugely successful franchise thank to The Purge flicks. But he’s yet to become a household name. And while new Netflix feature Wheelman won’t change that, it nevertheless proves that he has the talent and charisma to carry a film single-handedly.

That’s because Grillo is in pretty much every frame of the movie. Playing an unnamed getaway driver — who gets lumbered with the moniker ‘Wheelman’ early in proceedings — he’s down on his luck when we meet him, with a wife who has left, and a 13-year-old daughter who regularly gives him grief. Especially tonight, when all she wants to do is go to The Phoenix with Ryan.

He also owes money to the mob, which is why Wheelman agrees to a bank job set up by his shady friend Clay. It should be simple – pick up a couple of guys, take them to the gig, then drive them to the drop-off after.

But one of the dudes — played with serious attitude by Shea Wigham — insists on messing with his head during the ride. And while they are mid-robbery, Wheelman receives a call telling him to drive off as his passengers plan to kill him once they’ve got the money.

The driver does as he’s told, and all hell breaks loose, with Wheelman at the centre of cross and doublecross, that wife and daughter in mortal danger, and time running out fast.

Wheelman is a terrific anti-hero.

Baby Driver, Without the Tunes

Coming hot-on-the-heels of Baby Driver, Wheelman is certainly reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s summer smash, but where that film was an action epic, featuring car chases on steroids playing out to a stellar soundtrack, Wheelman in a far more understated affair.

Indeed the film it most resembles is Locke, the 2013 drama that starred Tom Hardy as a businessman whose life unravels via a series of phone calls during a long drive. The same happens to Grillo here.

We never see the outside of the first car he drives (though pretty much everyone comments on the fact that the colour of the trunk doesn’t match the rest of the car). Instead the film plays out in close-up, the camera trained on Grillo’s chiseled features as he speeds away from cars and motorbikes and lots of men with guns.

Guys on Phones

Wheelman is also the latest in a long line of film’s about a guy taking instructions from another guy on a phone. It’s a dramatic device that can create real tension and jeopardy (Phone Booth) or seem hokey and ridiculous (Nick of Time). Mercifully it’s the latter here, largely thanks to Grillo’s grandstanding performance, his character a likeable loser early on, but one who turns into a serious badass as he gradually gets the upper hand on the faceless bad guys who all want him dead.

But it’s also down to writer-director Jeremy Rush’s terrific dialogue, with snaps and crackles with authenticity. The best exchanges happen between Wheelman and Clay (Garrett Dilahunt), with the film’s finest scene occurring when they meet in person — in the car, of course — and the severity of our hero’s situation becomes apparent. Though the moment he upgrades to a Porsche runs it close.

Frank Grillo delivers a grandstanding performance in the title role.

Is Wheelman Good?

Late in the narrative, Wheelman tells his daughter that the two most important things when you are on the clock are speed and timing. And those are the two things that Wheelman gets very right. The film is fast, getting to where it’s going in no time at all. And there isn’t an ounce of fat on it, with every line and action in service of the story.

In spite of the fact that it’s a thriller that pretty much takes place inside a car, the film never feels claustrophobic, with the action unfolding on the other side of the windscreen masterfully choreographed.

All of which makes for a seriously entertaining thrill-ride. And with Frank Grillo at the wheel, turning the central character into a an anti-hero that you really root for, here’s hoping that this is just the start of Wheelman’s adventures.

Wheelman premiered at Fantastic Fest and hits Netflix on October 20.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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