If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the life of a getaway driver was glamorous. Earlier this year, Edgar Wright gave us the technicolor, fantasy version in Baby Driver, a fun, but ultimately hollow, tale of pretty people robbing banks and armored cars while their Motown-loving savant chauffeur zips them to safety down the streets of Atlanta. In 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn gave us Drive, the tale of an inscrutable Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. He says so little during the film we suspect he’s a monk who took a vow of silence, but can drive stick better than anyone at his monastery.
Wheelman, the new Netflix Original film starring Frank Grillo (The Purge: Anarchy, The Grey, Warrior), gives its audience the gritty, street-level view of being a getaway driver. You can practically smell the burnt rubber and nervous sweat as Grillo’s unnamed convicted felon speeds away from a bank robbery gone wrong (are there any other kind?). He owes a debt to the mob for looking after his family while he was serving time. His handler, Clayton (Garret Dillahunt), set up this gig, and it all goes to hell with a couple of suspicious phone calls. Threats are made; loyalties are questioned. And our wheelman doesn’t know who to trust as he drives into the night in search of answers.
Frank Grillo has always been a solid action hero who has inexplicably been relegated to the sidekick or second-in-command roles with the exception of the Purge sequels. I considered him to be the frontrunner to play The Punisher in the Netflix Marvel shows, but that part went to Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead), and given the stellar work he’s done in that iconic role, it’s hard to argue with that casting decision in hindsight. But, in Wheelman, Frank Grillo is front and center, and he makes the most of the opportunity. He proves himself to be much more than just a tough guy with a gun. The weight of the film falls on his shoulders, and he carries it with ease.
Wheelman spends much of its runtime playing against expectations. The film doesn’t careen from one action set piece to another which makes it sudden bursts of violence all the more effective. Wheelman takes a page from the Tom Hardy film Locke (2013) with our getaway driver frantically working the phones, trying to sort friend from foe as he bobs and weaves downs the city streets. The double and triple crosses come at breakneck speed. Grillo doesn’t know who to trust. There’s no honor among thieves, and one mistake could get his family killed.
With each passing year, Netflix’s original films stray farther from the mainstream, and that’s a good thing. From Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja to Mike Flanagan’s slasher riff Hush, gifted cinematic storytellers are finding a home at the streaming service when they weren’t finding funding from typical film production companies. Macon Blair’s directorial debut, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, debuted on the service in February, and it remains one of the best crime films of 2017. While Wheelman never quite reaches those artistic heights, if you like gritty, seedy crime dramas, this one will be available at the touch of a button on October 20th. I suggest you press PLAY.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.