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Wheelman (Fantastic Fest Review)

Wheelman (Fantastic Fest Review)
7 10

PLOT: A getaway driver finds that he can’t trust anyone after his latest job goes awry.

REVIEW: I’m probably not alone in thinking Frank Grillo should be a bigger star than he is. The actor has incredible screen presence, a persona that harkens back to badasses of old like Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone (in his prime). For one reason or another, he just hasn’t had a breakout role yet, although he makes an impression in practically every movie he’s in. There isn’t an instance when Grillo isn’t a welcome sight.

WHEELMAN might just be the movie that Grillo and his fans have been waiting for to really put him on the map as a leading man. He’s in almost every shot of the film, and it really gives him an opportunity to exude the kind of charisma and alpha male star power that he’s already known for. Playing a spin on that classic anti-hero, the getaway driver, Grillo carries the whole movie on his shoulders from the opening sequence to the last. It’s a role seemingly made for him.

Grillo plays Wheelman, an ex-con attempting to pay back some debts by getting back into the life. His latest job comes from an acquaintance, but he doesn’t know the key participants that’ll be accompanying him. One of them calls himself Motherf*cker (Shea Whigham, who is awesome); he’s an aggressive type who oozes sleeze and trouble. The Wheelman drives him to a bank which Motherf*cker and his cohort proceed to violently rob, but while that’s going on he receives a call from a mysterious man who tells him his new accomplices plan on killing him as soon as they’re done with the job. Now spooked, Wheelman leaves the goons behind (after they’ve put the money in the trunk) and spends the rest of the night trying to figure out who he’s working for and who he can trust, if anybody.

For much of the movie, we’re in the Wheelman’s passenger seat; the camera rarely leaves his side. The character is, thankfully, not always the epitome of macho cool. Writer-director Jeremy Rush wisely gives Wheelman moments where he expresses paranoia and fear, although he does quite well at slowly but surely putting the pieces together. He keeps getting phone calls from people he doesn’t know, being tugged this way and that as he scrambles to stay cool and deliver the money into the right hands. Not helping clear this head are calls from his teenaged daughter and ex-wife, adding a human element to his rugged exterior.

WHEELMAN was produced by Joe Carnahan, and his fingerprints are surely on the movie. (It’s closest in style and spirit to his first film, NARC.) Rush keeps things paced swiftly, with just enough action to break up what is essentially a fairly talky movie set in one location. There’s a stand-off with a motorcycle that is thoroughly exciting, and the way it wraps up is phenomenal. The film has a Walter Hill vibe that should please fans of gritty thrillers from the 70s and 80s. It’s clearly a movie made for smaller screens (Netflix produced), as a lot of it is shot in tight close-ups. It’s not the most cinematic movie, but it packs a punch when it needs to.

The particulars of the plot are a little less involving than the visceral aura of the movie. Once it’s revealed just what’s going on behind-the-scenes of Wheelman’s job the details are not quite as interesting as one might have hoped. Still, this is Grillo’s show, and as long as he’s on the screen we’re invested in the character’s plight. WHEELMAN is - please excuse the pun - a great vehicle for the actor.

Extra Tidbit: WHEELMAN debuts on Netflix October 20th

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