Fantastic Fest Review: Wheelman
Frank Grillo drives through the night
By Richard Whittaker,
12:45PM, Mon. Sep. 25, 2017
In case you hadn't noticed, Frank Grillo is a star. For anyone who needs convincing, heist flick Wheelman is final proof.
Between U.S. successes like his breakout role as Crossbones in the Captain America films, plus anchoring two movies in the blockbuster The Purge franchise, and the massive success in China of Wolf Warrior II ($780 million box office and counting), Grillo is a man in demand. It's no surprise: he's an old-school action hero, grizzled, wiry, and lean, in the lineage of Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin. He's got a face that looks like it could take a punch, and a fighter's stance that says he can hand them out, too.
But in Wheelman, it's just Grillo, a car, and a phone. In the classic tradition established by The Driver, he is a nameless getaway driver, hired for a bank robbery. When it all goes south (as it inevitably does), he's on his own, taking and receiving calls that get him deeper and deeper into trouble.
But the camera isn't really on Grillo. It's really on the car, and the action never shifts more than a few inches away from the bodywork, as the wheelman rolls through Boston, searching for safe passage and a way out of this mess.
The real-time trip inside a moving vehicle is scarcely a new conceit. It gave structure to Tom Hardy's rightly lauded performance in the contemplative character study Locke, while Bryan Bockbrader gave it a pulp edge with Vanish. For Wheelman, first time writer/director Jeremy Rush strikes a middle path between the two. On one side, he gives Grillo a meaty character piece to rip in to as a father struggling through a messy divorce. On the other, he's a growling action figure, caught up in a boiling gang war.
Yet where this may have both earlier films beat is in the way it's shot. Cinematographer Juan Miguel Azpiroz gives new emphasis to the term "establishing shot," as he signals that the camera will almost never get more than a few inches from the car – the distance of a GoPro mount. This is a white-knuckle ride, with a twisting script to match.
As the first film from Grillo's WarParty shingle, co-founded with Joe Carnahan (director of The Grey and Smokin' Aces), this explicitly and immaculately sets out their agenda of action flicks with brains. The fact it's been acquired already by Netflix means that it has a chance at a big home audience. But goddamn, this mean machine needs to be seen on the big screen.
WheelmanMonday, Sept. 25, 2:20pm
Wednesday, Sept. 27, 12:15am
Fantastic Fest runs Sept. 21-29. Follow all the announcements, news, reviews, and interviews at www.austinchronicle.com/fantastic-fest.