Locke is a tough movie to pull off. Just a guy in his car, on the phone, dealing with a personal crisis. Watch him make difficult decisions. Watch him take responsibility for his own bad choices. Watch him troubleshoot his own life. Baby Driver is an easy movie to pull off. A kind-hearted getaway driver getting into car chases, meeting a cute chick, and going on a heist. Watch him drive really fast. Watch him listen to catchy music. Watch him brood furiously into the camera. That Locke works and Baby Driver doesn’t speaks volumes about the difference between Tom Hardy and Ansel Elgort.
Wheelman is a little of both. It accepts the challenges of Locke, but embraces the simplicity of Baby Driver. One of its smartest choices is putting Frank Grillo in the driver’s seat. Visually, he’s ideal leading man material. That immaculately unshaved jawline, those intense sunken eyes, that wild hair refusing to behave. As an actor, he’s got just the right mix of hardened tough guy and soft-hearted dad. He’s the city and the suburbs, Hollywood and Sundance, drinking buddy and heartthrob. And he’s finally got a whole movie to himself, literally in the driver’s seat. A lesser movie would have made this about a tough criminal. But Wheelman insists on also being about a father, which gives the movie a lighter touch and ultimately a ton of heart. By the time it’s over — about ten minutes too late, but it’s earned a lot of goodwill by then — Wheelman is more Locke than Baby Driver. Daddy Driver.
First-timer Jeremy Rush shows fine instincts by shooting the movie with the same intimacy as Locke. Contrast this to a structurally similar movie called Getaway, which stays with Ethan Hawke as he drives through a souped-up thriller, which gets splashier and sillier the longer it goes on. Selena Gomez is along for the ride, which tells you all you need to know about Getaway. But Wheelman knows a car going fast is never as cool as a car going fast driven by someone you care about. Add someone who matters to the passenger seat and now you’re giving Locke a run for its money.