I know it feels like a thousand years ago, but remember when we had that brief controversy this summer when celebrity chef and badass cinema devotee Anthony Bourdain came out against Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver? Well, you’re still wrong about that one, Tony, but a new Netflix original movie, Wheelman, might offer you the kind of hyper-masculine car chase thrills that you’re looking for, and it’s got the kind of lead you’d hope for in a film this tough: Crossbones himself, Mr. Frank Grillo.
He’s fresh off a bizarre and interesting paycheck-turn in the Chinese propaganda action flick Wolf Warrior 2, and I’m utterly pleased to tell you that he kicks all sorts of ass in this one without ever even really throwing a punch. It comes from good stock: Produced by Grillo and the deeply underrated Joe Carnahan (whose film The Grey might be one of the best depictions of the Beckettian survival impulse to be put on celluloid this century, regardless if Liam Neeson’s wolf-fight was kept off screen) and written and directed by Jeremy Rush, it brings a Locke sensibility — of tight close-ups inside of the cab of a car and perpetual phone calls — to the chase film, which works deeply in its favor. Did I also mention it’s a great Boston movie, too? Yeah, it makes the best use of its Fort Point setting that it possibly can, though the setting is rarely acknowledged very much (eagle-eyed viewers will recognize it well enough). Anyways, it’s the best Netflix original since Okja, so use that for your pullquote.
It’s simple enough at first: Grillo plays a driver who is tasked with taking two crooks (including a fantastically mohawked Shea Wigham) to hit a bank by his fixer (Garret Dillahunt) for what’s supposed to be a quick and easy score. He’s juggling a number of issues: He’s been out of the joint for barely a year, he owes protection money to the men who protected him while he was inside, and his marriage has totally collapsed, leaving his daughter (Caitlin Carmichael) stuck between parents and feeling abandoned. So it’s an extra heap of bullshit when an out-of-area number calls him and tells him to drive away with the money once the hoods get back to the car after bagging the cash. At first, he doesn’t want to listen to the voice, but it tells him that the men are going to kill his ass unless he hits the road, so he does. From then on, the movie operates roughly in real-time, as our driver tries to desperately unfuck himself from the miserable fucked-up situation he’s found himself in. We never really leave his perspective, aside from a few Miami Vice-style shots of his BMW’s wheels turning and his headlights, it’s all pretty much told in extreme close-up behind his steering wheel or, when he leaves the car, through his windshield.
In a number of ways, this is the role that Grillo has been waiting for his entire career, and it gives him a great chance to step out of Jon Bernthal’s shadow, which has unfairly maligned him in his previous efforts like his role in the Purge films, which just so happened to come out right before the announcement of the latter’s role as The Punisher in the Netflix world. He’s a painfully great tough-guy, but he’s cut from a different cloth than most of the sweet-and-tender getaway drivers that we’ve seen on film in the past couple of years.
Rather than inferring his relationships and sadness, like we do in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, or watching him fall in love like in Baby Driver, we watch his interactions with his friends and their deterioration, and his tough-yet-kind relationship with his daughter, upon whose shoulders much of the third act rests upon. He’s Joe Pesci’s whine crammed into the visage of a man who can truly inflict the damage that actor often threatens to, and it establishes his beat as a particular kind of American badass who won’t take shit from the garish voice telling him to do all of this shit over the phone. There’s a desperation to all of his actions that feels almost wholly organic, and Grillo brings a great deal of sweaty energy to the plot’s propulsive nature.
Rush, for all that his last name implies, actually manages to make his 85-or-so minutes feel stretched out and deliberately paced, and he’s got a fantastic control of the moods and tones inside of Grillo’s car. There are a number of influences at play here: The usage of camera focus like in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the grounded phone-shouting that Steven Knight used in Locke used to its great success, to the low-key yet utterly badass violence of Soderbergh’s The Limey (of which a scene near the back of a bar seems to pay tribute to at one point). It’s one of the few chase movies that I can remember where there are honest-to-christ jump scares at various points through the film, and it’s about as effective as you can get when dealing with a genre sandbox that so many people have already played in.
There’s a noticeable grime to the whole ordeal, in both his tough-guy casting and his low-key setting, and it only adds to the authenticity of the moment. Wheelman is straight-up atomic fire, and a must-watch when it drops on Netflix next month. How ‘bout that, Tony?