A part-time Porsche racer who puts his skills to work driving getaway cars for a living finds it increasingly harder to actually get away in “Wheelman,” a surprisingly thrilling thriller.
Yes, we’ve seen this plot line before, in everything from the 2011 release “Drive” with the too-stoic Ryan Gosling and the recent “Baby Driver,” which was good or bad depending on whether you thought it was good or bad to the droningly painful 2013 flop “Getaway.” Put a good guy in the driver’s seat and force him to do way more than just run the few stop lights he thought he’d have to run. As in other such getaway plans, circumstances force the Wheelman of this title to make ever-more-difficult moral choices as his situation gets further and further out of what he wanted to be his tight-fisted control.
Actor Frank Grillo stars as the title character, a Porsche club racer with a 1973 911 RS back home in the garage. But we don’t see the RS till almost the end of the movie. The film is 82 minutes long, and the first 60 minutes all take place inside a BMW M3. Granted, it’s a four-door M3, so there’s a little more room, but this isn’t a place to relax in rich Corinthian leather. The M3 is the car the crime syndicate has provided for Grillo’s character to drive, and it becomes our tiny, wheeled window into this story.
Sometimes a premise like this works, sometimes it doesn’t. This one works.
Despite the four-door confines, you never feel claustrophobic and you will never, in any of the 82 minutes, look at your watch. I figured I’d look at 20 or 30 minutes of the movie at a time — who has 82 minutes in a row to spend watching TV anymore? — but I was sucked in: What’s going to happen next? Who are those dudes? Wait, what was that????
“Wheelman” stars Frank Grillo driving an M3.
Grillo’s character gets the Wheelman moniker from one of the two bank robbers he’s in the act of chauffeuring around. He doesn’t want to tell them his name or where he’s from and won’t even reveal what’s in the brown paper bag he keeps in the front seat — “It’s my lunch,” he says.
His anonymity is one more way he tries to morally justify his accomplice role in the crimes he’s about to commit. If he can justify the driving as a sort of job skill, then it’s just a job instead of a crime, he seems to be telling himself. It’s how he can maintain his moral sanity. He owes the Boston mob a favor, see? The quintessential “one more favor” before he can go straight. There’s not an overload of backstory offered here, and there doesn’t need to be.
But what he hopes will be a simple getaway drive from a simple bank robbery goes hopelessly haywire very early on, with the Wheelman coming under the increasingly threatening control of an anonymous voice going into his ear bud from his BMW center-console-mounted cellphone. When he refuses to cooperate with the voice, he finds his wife kidnapped and his 14-year-old daughter threatened — all by cellphone and all while he sits in the driver’s seat of the M3.
The first shot made outside the car doesn’t come until the 61st minute or so, and it feels like a relief. It’s not, of course, though you do get to breathe for a second. And at least we finally get to see the 911.
Like the movie, we’ll keep this stark and minimalist. You can see it for yourself when it comes out this Friday, Oct. 20 on Netflix –- yes Netflix, much better distribution, promotion and marketing power, according to Grillo. In fact, let’s let Frank Grillo himself tell you his perspective on “Wheelman.” He called us up a few days ago and answered all our questions. But you really should watch it. Even if you’re not in the PCA or the BMWCCA.
A simple bank heist. What could go wrong?
Autoweek: How much of your character is Frank Grillo and how much is a guy you made up or maybe somebody you know?
Frank Grillo: I grew up with guys like that. I grew up in the Bronx, and there were those guys who were always looking for shortcuts in life. In the beginning, maybe some of them got some success taking shortcuts, but as we get older, the nobility of being a hustler fades, you have to face reality and then you’re stuck. So I know those guys and I know how they think. I know how myopic they can be, and that’s how they approach life and that’s how I approached this guy.
AW: There’s mention of the crime he did before we see him. Do you have in your mind what that crime was and why he did it?
FG: (My character) was a guy who was involved in driving getaway cars, that’s what he did. He was a part-time race enthusiast, but (driving getaway cars was) what he did. But no harm, no foul — he didn’t carry a gun, he wasn’t looking to hurt anybody. He just drives the car, right? Somehow you can justify not being a criminal. And again, I know guys like that. Then one night there was an arson, he gets caught, he went away. And he didn’t say anything. He borrowed money from the guys who he was protecting and when he got out, you gotta pay ’em back. And part of payin’ ’em back is you gotta do more jobs. Which is exactly what he doesn’t want to do. At this point he’s a middle-aged guy, he just wants to connect with his teenage daughter. That’s his goal. So this is the obstacle.
Uh oh, who can this be?
AW: Is the Porsche in the film from a private collection?
FG: They had a couple of them. That particular one, John Rush the director, he has it. He bought it from the film. He loves that car. It was a special car, it really was. I love old Porsche 911s. It was a fun car to drive. Not easy to drive, but fun.
AW: Did you get to drive in the movie?
FG: Oh, it was a practical movie. 80 percent, 85 percent of those times I was driving. I had a reader in my ear (in the ear bud through which he talks to other unseen characters). So I wasn’t acting with an actor. Somebody’s reading to me rote. So I’m driving the car through the streets and then kind of getting sucked into somebody who wasn’t really performing on the other end. They were just reading the words. So it was a challenge. It was a juggling act.
AW: What BMW was that?
FG: It was a four-door M3. We had, like, six of them. Those are great little cars, by the way.
AW: Did you get one? Did you walk away from the movie with a car?
FG: No, by the end of movies, cars are not in the best shape. And to ship it from Boston to LA … They offered, but I’ve got a lotta motorcycles taking up space in my garage, and my wife’s gonna yell at me. I’ve got a buncha dirt bikes already in there, and enough is enough.
The M3 is a manual!
AW: Where was the movie shot?
FG: Boston, all over Boston: South Boston and in the North End. All at night, obviously.
AW: Being at night, it’s easier to close down a street.
FG: Yeah, and they were great crews in Boston, they’re just as good as a New York crew. And Boston really went out of their way to shut the streets down. It wasn’t like they were just doing two passes. They gave us full blocks. And in some cases, square blocks to keep doing it because they knew we were under a time constraint.
AW: How many days did you shoot?
FG: We had it scheduled for 23. Joe Carnahan and I produced the movie. It was the first movie for our company WarParty. So we got it down to 19 days. The last two days we were in the car, I did 35 pages of dialogue. We got into such a great rhythm that we were like, ‘We can crush this, we can save some money.’ That’s how you start thinking when you’re producing something. And we did it, we pulled it off.
AW: Did you shoot it in the order in which we saw it?
FG: We shot it like a play. We had the ability to shoot it in sequence because I wasn’t working with actors. It was all me all the time in the car. So we just ran through the script. I think that helped me a lot; the continuity helped me know where I needed to be emotionally and physically and psychologically.
The action is relentless.
AW: Is that a natural accent we hear?
FG: I’m from New York. I was born in the Bronx, educated in the public school system. So when I’m drinking a little wine or I go out with my friends, I can go into any number of levels of New York accent.
AW: Is it stated in the movie where this action takes place?
FG: It’s not, and by design. You don’t really know where it is. We’re in the car a lot. By design we’re not hitting the audience over the head with what I did in my past. We left all that out. It’s all very ambiguous because we always felt like it’s stated and any more would be unnecessary. It’s all very ‘70s film style. Veritas. We purposely left all that stuff out. We felt like we just didn’t need it. I like that kind of masculine filmmaking.
AW: It’s not like a date movie.
FG: Although, it’s funny because we got the screeners all over the country and women love it because of the father/daughter thing (The Wheelman is trying to improve the relationship with his 14-year-old daughter, who is drawn into the plot).
AW: Why Netflix? Why not a general theatrical release?
FG: Yeah, that’s the thing that you have to decide early on. This is a little movie. I’m not Brad Pitt. We knew we could get about $5 million from investors, financiers, with me and Joe making the movie. Netflix came in during the Cannes Film Festival while our agents were selling it, and they gave us an ample amount of money, more than we were asking. And here’s the deal: A movie like this would go to film festivals, it may be good for a release on a thousand screens, it has a little bit of a life, that’s usually the trajectory. Netflix loves this movie so much. This movie will be released in 186 countries. They have a marketing plan that in a million years we would never get if we had it in theaters. We shot the movie on anamorphic lenses, it was sound-designed by Kevin O’Connell, who had just won the Oscar for “Hacksaw Ridge.” It’s made to be on a big screen, it plays beautifully on a big screen. But we gave away that so we could get some people to see the film all over the world. Scorsese, he did the same thing with “The Irishman,” they bought it for over a hundred million bucks. He’s got De Niro, Pacino and all those guys, and it’s gonna be on Netflix. And I kind of think they’ve disrupted the business. In a good way. In allowing filmmakers to get their movies out there. So for a guy like (“Wheelman” director) Jeremy Rush, who was a PA (production assistant) before we got this movie for him, he’s guaranteed his first film, there’s gonna be eyes on it. It poses an interesting question all the time.