The 1970s were an era of gritty, low-budget, action movies like Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Getaway — straight-up, no-frills, character-focused, crime thrillers. These were simple films about drugs, guns, crooks, and cars… and the bad things that happen when they all come together.
Today, we call these “art house” pictures — the type of pure genre movie that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore.
Netflix — a company dedicated to serving niche audiences — embraces the old school filmmaking of the 70s, which is evident in their newest original film: Wheelman, starring Frank Grillo. Writer/director Jeremy Rush — who’s only made a handful of shorts and TV episodes to-date — takes us back to that era of uncompromising tough guys and antiheroes, in a film about a bank robbery gone wrong that’s jam-packed with unexpected twists and turns (no pun intended).
Grillo is fantastic as the ex-con and devoted family man who tries to work his way clear of a criminal setup and a mob debt, at more or less the same time. Before the film’s events Grillo’s unnamed driver-character cut a deal with the Philadelphia mob to protect his family while he served a 3-year prison sentence; now on parole, he works nights as a getaway driver to pay down the debt… until he’s sucked into a mafia power struggle that threatens him, his wife, and his daughter.
The entire movie is shot, art house style, from inside the car. The directing choice creates incredible tension, as encounters and conflicts occur both inside and outside the vehicle, while the camera keeps rolling. Along with the excellent sound design, the interior shooting style creates a unique and wildly claustrophobic atmosphere. Watching this movie, I felt constrained and unable to get a sense of my surroundings, which is precisely what the director was going for.
The plot might seem a little too throwback and cliched (it’s both), the surprises and twists keep the movie from being predictable. The tension, pace, and energy in this movie never really lets up. There’s blood and violence, but it’s more restrained than you might expect. Netflix’s superhero shows, like Daredevil, are actually more graphically violent than Wheelman, but the constant sense of danger around every corner that lends real menace to the whole narrative.
This is a solid, gritty film that’s far more polished than I was expecting. Wheelman also has a lot of heart; each of the actors gives believable performances in a really tight, terse script — Grillo in particular has to balance anger, fear, resentment, and parenting from moment to moment (this is his best role to-date, by far).
Netflix is perfectly positioned to bring this kind of small, artsy, genre film back into prominence. Wheelman is simple, fast stuff that knows what it is and who it’s for. Action fans should rejoice, Wheelman is great, old school fun!