I previously remarked that Frank Grillo has found himself in the wrong decade. As a leathery, gravel-voiced badass whose svelte exterior defies his middle age, it stands to reason that he’d have dominated 70s/80s action cinema had he been a part of it. But alas, it’s 2017, and after decades of smaller roles (anyone remember Silk Stalkings? It was on after Renegade), it appears that he’s found his place. Rather than lament the ill-timing of his personage finding a niche, Grillo has found a way to bring his niche to the present day.
Exploitation/grindhouse cinema is experiencing a sort of reboot. From the gritty, unapologetic Good Time, to the festive, hypercolor fun of Baby Driver, a style of film which has classically been defined by its limitations is now finding footing in a world where imagination and sheer storytelling panache needn’t be hindered by production ceilings. Basically, when it comes to grindhouse cinema, filmmakers have been classing up the joint without betraying the potency of what makes throwback cinema so great. Even the phenomenal Brawl in Cell Block 99, replete with A-List talent, chooses to remain in the blood and muck. It’s beautiful.
Earlier in this cinematic renaissance were films like The Purge: Anarchy, and The Grey, both of which helped turn Grillo into a household name for genre fans. Notably, the latter film paired him with Joe Carnahan, whose Narc might be the progenitor of the nouveau-grindhouse movement. The two formed a friendship and are now producing partners, and Wheelman is their newest baby.
Written and directed by first time filmmaker Jeremy Rush, Wheelman brings to the screen the type of stripped-down excitement which is so often traded for grandly staged chase sequences. We follow our titular wheelman (Grillo) as he reluctantly partakes in a bank robbery. We aren’t given much background as to who he is, but all the pieces are there — he’s been to jail before, he has a daughter and an ex-wife, and as much as he wants to be on the straight and narrow, it’s simply not the hand he’s been dealt. At the same time, we know that he’s the best in the biz. When picking up his ride for the night he expresses disdain to see that the paint on the trunk is noticeably mismatched to the rest of the car. Too noticeably. When his single-serving partners want to make small talk, he firmly declines. All business, this one. This is why, when the boss starts calling suspicious audibles to the already shaky plan, our hero takes great pains to regain control of the situation.
A brutal series of double crosses and escalations follow, and almost all of the action is framed from within the vehicle. Grillo dominates every frame he’s in, successfully creating a more nuanced character than what’s likely on the page. This is no slight to Rush’s script, which deftly weaves a dense web of plot. It’s easy to follow, but layered enough to suggest a fully-formed world outside of the car. Supporting appearances from Caitlin Carmichael as Katie, the wheelman’s daughter, and Wendy Moniz as his estranged wife (Grillo and Moniz are married in real life too) add human stakes to this underworld tale and also function to humanize our nameless protagonist. A single scene’s worth of Garret Dillahunt serves up a year’s worth of entertainment, bringing a few welcome moments of pitch black humor to things, right when they’re needed most.
The real star of the show, however, is Jeremy Rush. If you look up his IMDB page, you’ll notice that his filmography is sparse to say the least. He’s directed two short films and THAT’S IT. You’d never know it by looking at Wheelman. Everything about this movie should prove difficult to frame, but it never feels as claustrophobic as one could reasonably expect. Really, how does one keep a narrative confined to a car and make it look so effortless? A few years back, the Tom Hardy drama Locke used a similar visual conceit, but the driving(ha!) force of the film was insular, leaning upon the actor’s masterful command of dialogue and facial subtleties to bring the story to life. With Wheelman there’s an action movie happening behind the drama, and Rush maintains a level of breathlessness and clarity that feels all but impossible. A few shots borrow heavily from the car chases of yore (utilization of a side-mounted rear view camera to capture those vehicular pursuers is heavily reminiscent of The French Connection), while more than a few are almost maddeningly inspired. There’s a beautifully lit slow-chase sequence in a tunnel that will knock you for a loop long before it evolves into a high-speed thrill parade.
Can you tell I love this flick?
During a post-screening Q&A, Grillo spoke of what this type of filmmaking represents to him. Having grown up on the films of Charles Bronson and his ilk, Grillo has long fantasized about carrying the same torch. He spoke of how life-affirming it has been to find that the behemoth being that is the film industry does indeed hold a place for him, and really anyone who’s willing to believe in themselves and put in the work to back it up. I asked him how he came across the script, and furthermore, how he became acquainted with Rush.
“That guy,” notes Grillo with a look of intense admiration. “…that guy was a PA who knocked on every dressing room door he could find, handing his script to anyone who would take it. One day he handed it to me.”
Wheelman, simply put, kicks ass. It’s a slick homage to my favorite era of filmmaking. It’s a stand-alone vehicle (ha!) for a niche actor who is finally getting his due. It’s an astonishing debut from a potent new filmmaker. Most importantly, it’s on Netflix, and you can watch it RIGHT NOW.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.