It’s difficult to avoid catchphrases like “stripped for speed” and “pedal to the metal” while appraising “Wheelman,” writer-director Jeremy Rush’s cunningly conceived and skillfully executed thriller about a getaway driver who is driven to extremes when someone carjacks the heist for which he’s been hired. It’s a grade-A B-movie that gets maximum mileage from a carefully calibrated mix of hardboiled neo-noir melodrama and high-velocity minimalism. Just as important, Rush’s more-than-promising debut feature — which clocks in at just 82 minutes, with nary a wasted second — is a perfect-fit star vehicle for Frank Grillo, the sinewy tough customer whose previous credits include TV’s “Kingdom,” the Chinese-produced smash hit “Wolf Warrior II” and appearances in the “Captain America” and “Purge” franchises.
The set-up may sound like something on the order of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (or Walter Hill’s “The Driver”), but “Wheelman” actually has a bit more in common with “Locke,” Steven Knight’s car-confined road trip featuring Tom Hardy as a family man driven by cell-phone conversations, and “Adrenaline,” Robert Archer Lynn’s undeservedly obscure 2007 drama about an innocent bystander blackmailed by an unknown caller into pulling off a major crime.
The big difference here, of course, is that the eponymous protagonist played by Grillo would never be described as innocent. And he has even more trouble with unseen callers when a bank robbery spins nightmarishly out of control. Grillo’s character — let’s call him Wheelman, since he’s never given another moniker — is a recently released ex-con who owes the Boston mob big time after the made men took care of his estranged wife and 13-year-old daughter while he was in prison. He’s a curt, no-nonsense professional who’s easily riled whenever he perceives incompetence (note his profane reaction when an underworld factotum provides him with a BMW that isn’t quite as inconspicuous as he’d like) and furiously impatient when anyone, even a robber he’s chauffeuring to a bank job, questions his demand for anonymity.
In short, he’s a hard case who insists on being in control of every situation and conversation. So he’s at once enraged and discombobulated when, while his two “passengers” are inside robbing the bank, he gets a call from an “out of area” stranger who orders Wheelman to leave the robbers behind after they dump the loot in the trunk. Otherwise, the stranger warns, they will kill him when they reach the drop point.
Wheelman does indeed speed off with more than $200,000 in his trunk — and panic coursing through his veins. He doesn’t know who to believe, or why and how he’s being set up, as he races from one end of Beantown to the other, all the while fielding phone calls to and from the “out of area” stranger, the sketchy contractor (Garrett Dillahunt) who recruited Wheelman for the job and an angry Boston mobster who claims to have set up the heist in the first place. And as if things weren’t chaotic enough in the midst of this life-or-death back-and-forth, Wheelman has someone else calling for his attention: Katie (Caitlin Carmichael), his young daughter, who picks a hell of a time to worry dad with the news that she’s at home with only her older boyfriend for company.
At first, the latter subplot seems intended as comic relief. But the father-daughter relationship grows progressively more important as the movie progresses, just as the protagonist’s fear and desperation evolve into ferocity and ingenuity. Grillo and Carmichael develop a credible give-and-take that becomes increasingly compelling as Katie is drawn into her father’s predicament.
“Wheelman” turns out to be as much a riveting character study as it is a beat-the-clock thriller. Rush keeps us inside the BMW with the title character for long stretches, amping the claustrophobic intensity and making us share his rage and bewilderment by presenting everything from his adrenalized point of view.
Grillo handles rapid-fire vacillations of emotional extremes as assuredly as Wheelman maneuvers through the nighttime streets of Boston, enabling the audience to easily empathize with his character. At one point, when his face suddenly lights with an up-yours grin after he scores a brief triumph, even viewers watching this Netflix production at home may break into cheers.
It would be inaccurate to describe “Wheelman” as action-packed, although Rush certainly delivers the goods when chase scenes are appropriate, and sudden violence is needed to raise the mortal stakes. But Rush’s refusal to rely too heavily on such traditional action-movie elements makes them all the most thrilling — and in at least one case, genuinely shocking — when he does drop them into the mix. Simultaneously ice cold and red hot, “Wheelman” reflects the influences of directors as diverse as Jean-Pierre Melville, Don Siegel and John Woo. Rush is not quite yet in their league. But he’s working on it.