Wheelman is a perfect late-night comfort food for anyone who fondly remembers 1970s thrillers or gritty films like Bullitt. It wears its inspirations proudly, right from the start with the drop-shadow text used for its title credits, its anamorphic lenses distorting its out-of-focus city lights and the Taxi Driver-like lingering shots of the car bodywork reflecting the streetlights and pebble-dashed by rain.
I’m not going to suggest that this admittedly low-budget b-movie is a classic of its kind, but it’s a welcome throwback to a sort of low-key film-making that I enjoy, without any OTT hysterics of huge stunts and CG augmentation. With a small cast you could almost count on one hand it’s almost like a stage-play, with the majority of the film firmly taking place inside the getaway car driven by the titular Wheelman, played by Frank Grillo in one of his best performances that I’ve seen. Most of the character conflict is via his handsfree mobile phone (one of the technological nods that so clearly makes it of our time, for all the aesthetic nods to the 1970s thrillers it aspires to), and Grillo is the core of the film and its success really stems from his performance.
The Wheelman is a getaway driver for a bank robbery, hired through a third party for a job involving two robbers he doesn’t know- he’s doing the job to pay his dues to the mob from when he spent three years in prison (the mob presumably looked after his family on the outside). However he gets double-crossed by the third party and played as a pawn in a mob war, racing through the night-time city chased by the waring mob factions and the bank robbers (who he was instructed to leave behind once they loaded the boot with the $200, 000 stash). Its partly a car-chase movie, partly a noir, partly a thriller. He doesn’t know who to trust and his family starts to get threatened and pulled into the drama- its a fairly brisk film at barely 80 minutes and is all the better for it. Its mean and lean, just like those 1960s/1970s thriller its first-time director Jeremy Rush is obviously fond of.
Its not hugely ambitious (it’s no Baby Driver or Drive, for instance, in terms of its stunts etc) but it’s perfectly formed for what it is, within its budget. I really quite enjoyed it as a relaxing, undemanding b-movie thriller and its well worth a watch.