“I drive the car. I’m the wheelman. That’s it. End of story.”
The incredible thing about the film Locke is how much tension it manages to generate by depicting Tom Hardy making telephone calls about a concrete pour & a domestic snafu while driving practically in real time in a fancy car. The much grimier, less delicate Netflix Original™ Wheelman sets that restraint & refinement aflame and then pisses on the ashes. Wheelman is essentially Locke with all of the references to concrete substituted with variations on the word “motherfucker” (so much so that Shea Whigham’s Travis Bickle-esque scumbag is billed simply as Motherfucker in the credits) and its stage play dialogue being run over at full speed by GTA-style video game action/chaos. Most people who adored Locke weren’t likely wishing to themselves that it would be remade as a hyper-violent, bitterly macho shoot-em-up, but they’d likely have fun with what Wheelman does with the formula anyway. There aren’t many action movies this year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper and the fact that it resembles a much classier high-concept picture makes it all the more charming in its own scrappy way.
Frank Grillo stars as the titular Wheelman, a tough-as-nails ex-con who drives getaway missions to repay mobsters for debt he accrued in prison. The movie details a single night of mayhem in his miserable life when a heist goes horribly wrong & puts everything he loves in jeopardy. Instructed to abandon his crew in the middle of a bank robbery, the wheelman finds himself stuck between two warring criminal factions while in possession of the cash they both claim ownership over. Between street chases & gunfights across the city, he negotiates the terms of the money’s surrender by phone between both parties while also sending instructions to his daughter & ex-wife on how to avoid the mobsters’ clutches and tracking down the people responsible for getting him stuck in such a dangerous position in the first place. The plot is lizard brain simple, leaving plenty of room for the slickly edited camera trickery & city-wide mountain of paranoia that drive the film’s action. It’s as if the opening heist sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. In other words, it’s a blast.
It’s easy to imagine an action film with this little dedication to establishing complex plot & characters feeling boring or empty, but Wheelman compensates for these deliberate deficiencies just fine in its attention to craft. The majority of the film is shot from inside the car, even the conflict-inciting bank robbery, so that the audience feels like they were shoved in the back seat against their will and taken on a reckless ride into the night. Even when drivers switch hands at the wheel, the POV remains with the car itself. Shots are framed tire-level at dangerously sharp turns. Gunshots & head wounds are allowed to sink in with full impact, even though the movie’s usual M.O. is to chase break-neck kineticism. Much like Locke, Wheelman is little more than a sequence of phone calls made by a single character in the driver’s seat of a nondescript car, but it finds a way to make every moment of that dynamic unbelievably thrilling. It’s much trashier & flashier than Locke, though, so the fact that it’s able to pull off its same formula is much less surprising, even if it is a brutally constant source of action mayhem/fun.