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Fantastic Fest: ‘Wheelman’ Puts Netflix’s Genre Fare on the Map

While nothing looked right on paper, Netflix’s ‘Wheelman’ is revealed to be one of the finest original films in the streaming giant’s catalog.
By  · Published on October 3rd, 2017

While nothing looked right on paper, Netflix’s ‘Wheelman’ is revealed to be one of the finest original films in the streaming giant’s catalog.

If you were to only look at the short synopsis for Jeremy Rush’s Wheelman, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a movie you could afford to skip. Despite the presence of Frank Grillo as the film’s star and genre icon Joe Carnahan as producer, the combination of keywords present in the plot description – bank robbery, double-cross, teenage daughter – seems to hint at a second-tier movie with a few first-rate talents. Imagine my surprise, then, when Wheelman turns out to match style and substance. The confident execution of the film’s story makes it one of the best films to hit Netflix since the streaming giant pivoted to original content.

In Wheelman, Frank Grillo plays the unnamed title character, a Boston getaway driver, and ex-convict who takes the work assigned to him by his friend Clayton (Garret Dillahunt). During his latest job, the Wheelman – because we have to call him something, right? – receives a phone call and an ultimatum from an unknown number: either ditch his crew and drive off into the night with the money in his trunk or go to war with a local gang, including threats against the Wheelman’s wife and teenager daughter. This sets of a series of violent and unexpected events, where the Wheelman does his best to survive the night, all while finding a way to resolve the violent threats against his family before they come to pass.

Films shot in a single location – even if the location itself is constantly as on the move, as is the case with the car in Wheelman – are often a tricky proposition. Lean too heavily on your gimmick and audiences will walk away from the film praising the style but bemoaning the substance; try too hard to develop an independent storyline and critics will wonder why you felt the need to place artificial limitations on your story, to begin with. To that end, Wheelman is a masterclass in B-movie pacing, delivering a handful of visual thrills without losing sight of the larger story. So much of the film is Frank Grillo talking into a phone, but the actor’s gravel-voiced weariness – and the charisma he brings into the film as a respected character actor and second-tier movie star – helps him carry the film through even its most wandering elements. It also doesn’t hurt that a handful of actors pop up in unexpected places. Garrett Dillahunt and Shea Whigham are just the right actors for these types of supporting roles, delivering gravitas and humor while still moving the story along. We give the characters more credit than they deserve due to the actors playing them.

The most surprising element of Wheelman, however, is the strength of its plotting. Many genre movies tend to err on the side of performance and aesthetics over sustained storytelling; throw a rock in a Wal-Mart bargain bin and you’ll hit a handful of films that execute the look and feel of a ’70s genre film while giving us nothing of value in the narrative. Surprisingly, Wheelman manages to weave together a cohesive story that pits Wheelman as an unwitting pawn in a developing turf war between two rival gangs. In Wheelman, the score itself – the $200,000 lifted from the local branch of a major financial institution – matters less to the overall story than the power the money represents. If one organization cannot guarantee the delivery of the money to its intended target, then that organization is weak; who ends up with the cash is less a matter of financial liquidity and more a matter of perceived weakness, a refreshing spin on a familiar crime story.

It’s also worth noting that Wheelman is one of several films showing at Fantastic Fest this year that follow a dedicated family man operating outside the law to provide for his family. Grillo’s character may be separated from his wife, but he is desperately trying to repair his relationship with his teenage daughter, going so far as to threaten her 17-year-old boyfriend when he crashes for a movie night while Grillo’s character is out. Some have pointed to films like Wheelman and Brawl in Cell Block 99 as (for better or worse) examples of a post-recession thriller, where economic anxieties have driven middle-aged white men outside the law to provide for their families, but it’s hard to separate the form from the function. Decades of exploitation films have offered down-on-their-luck heroes who resort to violence to protect their loved ones; it’s difficult to know where homage ends and social commentary begins.

All told, however, Wheelman is the execution of a simplistic idea: put a charismatic actor in a vehicle and let him puzzle his way out of that situation over the course of a feature film. Wheelman will no doubt elicit comparisons to classic ’70s films, and those comparisons are warranted, but Wheelman also delivers perhaps the most well-rounded narrative we’ve seen to-date from a Netflix genre film. If Netflix’s big gamble going forward is to find talented filmmakers and genre icons and give them just enough money to be dangerous, then Wheelman is more reason for excitement than any number of Netflix’s Marvel television spinoffs.

Wheelman will hit Netfilx on October 20, 2017.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)