There’s a classic feel to Wheelman, it’s something Walter Hill would have made with Charles Bronson or Jean-Pierre Melville would have made with Alain Delon. Jeremy Rush’s feature length debut is a film that operates on basic mechanics but does all the simple stuff so well that it exceeds the sum of its parts. There’s a direct to dvd charm about it, and that is 100000% a compliment. I love direct to dvd action films, they’re always operating on limited resources to deliver the maximum thrill – something Wheelman does extremely well. Also, for what it’s worth, the tagline “Drive Fast. Think Faster.” on the poster is definitely one of the greatest taglines I’ve ever seen, just under the tagline for Faster – “Slow Justice is No Justice.”
I once wrote a whole column a few years ago about how Frank Grillo is our most undervalued action hero. He’s had such few opportunities to do action (The Purge sequels and the Captain America sequels) but he’s always made the most of it. He’s somebody that just simply looks like they could fight and more importantly can perform the fight choreography and stuntwork himself. Wheelman recognizes the natural action hero in Grillo, but also understands what a terrific actor he is and the depths of emotion he has at his disposal. Wheelman works so well off the strength of Grillo’s natural weariness, he’s able to communicate several different emotions at once so simply just in the demeanor his face takes.
Jeremy Rush learns a lot of good lessons from producer Joe Carnahan (director of The Grey, Smokin Aces and The A-Team) by delivering on a gritty aesthetic, practical effects and a focus on character. Outside of a minute of the film, the camera stays in or on the car. Even when the shot is exterior to the vehicle, the camera is still mounted on the car. I also really appreciated that you could tell they filmed it all with the car in motion rather than use green screen. It just gives the film a physical, tactile feel that it would have otherwise lacked. What’s more is that the experiment of shooting it all in or on the car never feels too gimmicky, never runs itself stale. Aside from a few repeated cutaways to the trunk or hood, Rush and his editor keep the pace heightened and the shots fresh. By embracing the limitations they’ve set for themselves, they end up transcending them in certain sequences. There will be parts where Grillo’s character has to exit the vehicle, but the fact that we are forced to wait inside while he goes into another building or something just makes it more suspenseful and clever. It’s also encouraging to see Grillo doing much of the driving himself, it goes a long way in enhancing your engagement with Wheelman. The Blair Brothers keep popping up in films I love (Blue Ruin and Green Room) and continue to deliver strong work in their understated, thumping score.
It’s got a very thoughtful ending, because it’s asking a central question of Grillo’s character. Before him, outside of the vehicle, lies a path to redemption and happiness, yet he doesn’t exit the car. Why doesn’t he get out of the car? You just watch Grillo’s face give you several different emotions in a flash as he contemplates that very question. It’s a pretty poignant finish for a film like this.
Wheelman may be the first great original Netflix film. I don’t necessarily mean that it is the most well made or artful or meaningful original Netflix film, I just mean that it’s the first original Netflix film that is a perfect fit for the Netflix release. When I watch the better Netflix films like Okja, I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore or Beasts of No Nation, I think they’re really good and everything but I always finish them with the feeling that I would have rather seen them in the theater. Before you come for me on twitter, yes I know they technically put them out in theaters, but only ever in a few theaters in NY or LA. That doesn’t count. And yes, I know it’s because a lot of theaters understandably won’t screen their films because most people will just watch them on Netflix, but that’s a hole Netflix has dug for themselves. It’s just not a good business strategy to hope enough people tweet about whatever film you’ve thrown on your service.
I’m not hating on Netflix, I’m on there like every other day watching something. It’s a terrific resource and at the end of the day I’m grateful that somebody is willing to write blank checks for films like Okja or Jeremy Saulnier’s upcoming Hold the Dark or Scorsese’s upcoming The Irishman. I just don’t think they’re doing a good job of selling and releasing their own films. This was the first Netflix film I was just happy to watch on the couch with my friend Huston. It’s a crisp 82 minutes, it just flies by. Huston put it best by pointing out that if it was straight to dvd, people would just write it off but that it also wouldn’t have likely done that well in theaters, so Netflix made perfect sense for Wheelman. This is the first film where I’m telling people to go to their Netflix account rather than the theater, and I hope they produce more films like this that actually stand to gain an audience and notoriety from Netflix rather than just get buried under the infinite content of the streaming service.