Movie Review : Wheelman (2017)
Heist movies didn't age well. Nobody thinks it's a smart get-rich-quick scheme in 2017, so it's difficult to become involved with bank robbing characters. But they keep being made and directors and studios are more aware than ever that they need to be different. That's why we get movies like Wheelman, a slick, low budget noir starring Frank motherfuckin' Grillo. Because it gives us comforting thrills in an unfamiliar way. Because there's a heist in it, but it's not about the heist. Wheelman is simple, original and while it can't avoid certain clichés, it delivers them with gusto and confidence anyway.
So, Wheelman is the story of the wheelman, a seemingly ordinary getaway driver working back a debt he contracted with local mobsters while doing a three years stint in prison. He gets a call from who he believes to be his handler in the middle of a job, telling him that his two colleagues plan to kill him at the drop, so he takes off with the money. Then, it becomes suddenly unclear whether or not the man on the phone is the handler. The wheelman calls his contact Clay (played by the always amazing Garret Dillahunt) to get explanations, but he is oddly evasive about the issue and beckons him to do what he's told. What the fuck is going on?
Wheelman is profoundly indebted to Drive and Locke. In other words, it's an atypical heist movie where the getaway driver is the protagonist and it more or less all happens inside his car. It's a tall order to measure yourself up against such movies, but Wheelman's writer and director Jeremy Rush never shies away from his influences and sticks to a very precise (and perhaps unambitious) idea: getting its protagonist through the night. Both Drive and Locke, draw outside the lines of genre cinema, but Wheelman embraces them. What made it stand out, in my opinion, was that it portrayed the almost entirety of its violence through the car's windshield.
This is brilliant for three reasons: 1) it's an excuse to frame violence in a colder, more analytical way without losing its chaotic nature. 2) it echoes the way we consume violence (through a screen) and 3) it hasn't been done before. At least, not like that.
I've also enjoyed Wheelman because it's a heist movie that isn't really about the heist. The actual robbery takes about three minutes of the entire running time. There is no leading up to it, no planning or recruiting and (blissfully) there is no greedy double cross involving the participants. Wheelman is free of all that bullshit. In fact, it's reverse engineering it and wonders: what if the character usually hired to perform a task and get killed suddenly became the center of the story? What if the quintessential bag of money became accessory to an otherwise pedestrian part's survival? A support character tells the wheelman at some point: "it's about more than $230,000." Greed has been the center of almost every heist movie in history, but in Wheelman, it's the boogeyman. It's what's threatening our protagonist.
Wheelman is highly enjoyable, but it's not perfect. Its weak spot is its protagonist, who is a highly cliché good-guy-doing-bad-things-for-his-family, trying to protect people he loves, yadda, yadda. That's why Jeremy Rush got a strong performer like Frank Grillo in there, to make people give a shit anyway. Otherwise, Wheelman is a low budget, low-key movie that delivers exactly what you'd want from a heist movie in 2017: everything that revolves around it, but that doesn't have to do with getting away with the money. Maybe you guys will be dubious because it appeared at random on Netflix last month and it's not carried by Oscarized talent, but Wheelman's kind of the real deal, guys. I hope Jeremy Rush and Frank Grillo will team up again in the future, because they have a good thing going.