Fantastic Fest 2017: WHEELMAN: Lean, Mean, Headed To Your Screens

Frank Grillo & Joe Carnahan’s WarParty Shingle Partner With Netflix

Frank Grillo is a star.

I’ll follow him to most any project he chooses. And with Wheelman, he’s poised to become a real household name. That’s because Wheelman is literally coming to your households October 20th as the latest Netflix Original. He’s also on screen for probably 95% of the runtime of Wheelman, and never once becomes tiresome to watch. Grillo has curated a brand for himself in a relatively short span of time, and Wheelman falls very much within his… wheelhouse (sorry), while highlighting him as a true leading man. Tough, capable, constantly swearing, and always putting family first… that’s the Frank Grillo brand. And I’ll follow that brand for life at this point. From his lead role as former MMA champ Alvie Kulina in the solid series Kingdom, to his Frank Castle-esque role in the Purge sequels which saw him breakout as the clear star of a popular franchise, Grillo offers a square jawed hero in the vein of Stallone or Eastwood.

Wheelman sees Grillo become the nameless and titular hero of a bank heist gone very wrong. From an original script by writer/director Jeremy Rush (whom Grillo stated was working as an entry level Production Assistant until about 1 year ago when he and Joe Carnahan’s WarParty shingle took on his original script), Wheelman takes a few pages out of the Blumhouse model and sets some limitations on itself in order to deliver a harrowing crime-action experience on a fraction of the budget of most Hollywood blockbusters. I won’t be the first or last to suggest that Wheelman feels like Tom Hardy and Steven Knight’s Locke juiced up on nitrous oxide and gunpowder. The action takes place almost exclusively in or around our Wheelman’s chosen heist vehicle, with the first act relying heavily on a series of dozens of cell phone calls. He’s called by a stranger to abandon the goons he’s driving after they steal the money, or he’ll be killed. Having no choice but to follow the demands of this stranger, things get more and more complicated as the true details of the botched heist become clearer.

The Wheelman has to think (and drive) fast in order to gain any kind of upper hand or leverage to survive this situation. While I was onboard the film from the jump, the similarities to Locke were at times frustrating as our hero’s phone is just ringing off the hook and he’s juggling family issues with his daughter and multiple nameless criminals who are now out to get him. Fortunately, the vision for the film is clear, and as Wheelman’s priorities and plans crystalize, the movie shifts gears into a full-throated action/chase film that’s truly cinematic, edge of your seat stuff.

With a throbbing score, gorgeous, car-mounted and claustrophobic cinematography, dozens of comic and human beats throughout the script, and some thrillingly executed chases and action set pieces, Wheelman delivers on its concept in spades. And while I’m thrilled to see this film become available to an extremely wide audience very soon, there is a part of me that mourns the loss of the theatrical experience for a movie like this. There were moments that approached Heat-levels of ear-rattling gunplay that demand to be seen big and loud, with the best sound possible. Many will end up watching it on iPhones. I guess that is simply the world we live in, and bears no reflection on the film itself. For what it’s worth, Grillo and Carnahan had nothing but good things to say about working with Netflix. And if Netflix is going to provide a home to this kind of top quality content made at a fraction of the average Hollywood film and treating adults like adults (all of which Hollywood is largely refusing to do at this time), then I’ll take that trade off, shut up, and load Wheelman into my Queue.

From the opening font projecting a clear 1970s inspiration to the hugely satisfying third act, Wheelman knows exactly what it is and delivers on its intentions to thrilling results. Keeping the proceedings almost claustrophobically tied to vehicle interiors sets up certain limitations, but allows Jeremy Rush to find his own style within those constraints, and keep the plot moving at a hundred miles an hour. With a tight script and runtime, Wheelman is a success top to bottom. Wide audiences will eat this title up when it shows up on their Netflix algorithms, and cinephiles will appreciate its roots in the annals of car chase history.

And I’m Out.

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