Wheelman movie review: Netflix takes you on claustrophobic thrill ride with Frank Grillo
If you’ve watched Baby Driver, Drive and the Fast and Furious movies, and thought you’ve seen every possible iteration of a racing movie, Wheelman will surprise you. This is a tense, kinetic, unpredictable ride with enough ingenuity to differentiate itself from other movies about getaway drivers.
For a debut film, Wheelman — directed by Jeremy Rush — is a very strong entry in the genre. Rush presents the film as an extremely high brow B-movie, an exercise in minimalism but with bursts of escapist excess at regular intervals. It’s also a showcase of how a story on a shoestring budget could be presented as a much bigger film than it actually is.
The first thing you’ll notice about Wheelman is how well it is shot by cinematographer Juanmi Azpiroz. The film opens with a static shot of an unknown location, that is revealed to be the inside of a car, which then seamlessly blends into a single take introduction of the titular protagonist (played by Frank Grillo) and the way he operates. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, only because there’s such intricate planning involved in filming this way.
The entire film is set in real time over the course of one night as the Wheelman proceeds on a bank robbery getaway job that goes horribly wrong. What makes it immediately interesting, however, is that the information regarding the plot is given through phone conversations that the Wheelman is having with various people, including his handler – a person unknown to him, as well as another mysterious caller who seems to have motivations to screw him over or save his life, depending on whom he can trust. The execution is reminiscent of the Tom Hardy film Locke, which also had a protagonist dealing with increasingly unpredictable phone conversations. The standard issue plot threads such as cops, robbers, double crossers, and a damsel in distress don’t feel like clichés because they’re all presented in ways we haven’t seen before.
The tight, claustrophobic sections of the car are superbly complemented by sudden gusts of violence and car chases, both of which are given unique camera perspectives. We see most of the action as if we’re sitting inside the car, reeling with the insane swerves our hero is subjecting his car to. The persistently long, silent, tension-filled moments also sensitise you to every subsequent eruption of mayhem. Every gunshot or surge of the car through a narrow lane therefore makes you cringe. And in a film where the protagonist constantly finds himself in situations that limit him, every leap over the limitations is a joy to watch.
Rush also injects bits of escalating mystery, like a black motorcycle shadowing the Wheelman’s car thereby making things all the more confusing. It’s not very difficult to figure out what the Wheelman has gotten himself into and who is toying with him, but it’s all fun enough to simply sit back and enjoy the fireworks on display. The film is further elevated by the performance of Grillo, who also produced the movie, bringing in something new to the getaway driver role. It’s nice to finally see him in a starring role after years of making strong impressions in smaller roles in big movies. This is ultimately another solidly made original film by Netflix – and a testament to their trust in the filmmakers’ vision rather than making ‘safe’ movies just because they’re mainstream and therefore commercially viable.
Wheelman is currently streaming on Netflix India.