Friday, 20 October 2017

NETFLIX ON WHEELS: Kidnap & Wheelman

This month, Netflix released two car-centric thrillers, the long-delayed Kidnap, starring Halle Berry, and the Joe Carnahan-produced Wheelman, starring Frank 'No Carbs' Grillo.

Kidnap (dir. Luis Prieto)
On a trip to a local park, single mother Karla's (Halle Berry) son Frankie is kidnapped. After watching the kidnapping, Karla gives chase in her minivan.

Reviews for this movie have not been kind, but I really enjoyed it.

In an era of overcomplicated, big budget excess, Kidnap is pleasingly straightforward. We get a nice set up of home movies setting up the bond between Karla and Frankie, then a quick introductory vignette with Karla and her son leaving work and going to the park. By 15 minutes in, Frankie has been kidnapped and Karla is gunning her minivan after the bad 'uns.

This movie is a simple genre exercise, one that works on primal emotions - bad people kidnap a kid. They need to die. They do. Done. It is a strategy that we have seen most recently with the death of John Wick's adorable puppy. Kidnap plays to the same base instincts.

In this respect, the two movies it reminded me of the most were Jonathan Mostow's Breakdown (1997), with Kurt Russell as an increasingly frenzied husband chasing down the men who have kidnapped his wife, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando, which shares Kidnap's unapologetic simplicity and logic-defying narrative progression. Most of the movie takes place behind the wheel of Halle Berry's car. Like her character, we are trapped - Karla's POV is the only one we have. The villains get almost no shading. For most of the runtime, we see them as figures in the distance, or as a hand at a car window. And that is all we need.

A large part of what makes this movie compelling is Halle Berry. She is awesome in this movie - I haven't seen parental panic this believable in awhile, and she sustains it throughout the movie. There's a scene where she literally prays to the almighty - it is the cheesiest thing in the world, but she sells the shit out of it
Kidnap is as simple as its title. And if you are in the mood for a pure shot of adrenaline (or NOS), it does the business. It is not as good as the other movie I am reviewing, but on its own modest terms it's a good time. Plus you cannot hate a movie that ends with an ice cream montage.
Wheelman (dir. Jeremy Rush)
After he is double-crossed following a bank robbery, a getaway driver (Frank Grillo) races through the city with two bags of cash and his compatriots on his tail. With his family on the line, he has to figure out what is going on before time runs out...

From the opening shot, with the camera behind the driver's seat, director Jeremy Rush establishes the claustrophobia and relentless forward-motion which define Wheelman's diegesis. Most of the runtime is spent inside the car, as Grillo's increasingly panicked driver drives around anonymous city streets. The only time we leave the car is to follow him as he gets into another (cooler) car.

Don't go in expecting relentless vehicular mayhem - this is an action movie in the purest sense of the term. There are no explosions or big set pieces, just a tough SOB in a situation he can barely comprehend. 

In other words, Wheelman is my kind of action movie. 

Tight and economical, with a clear, simple premise and a clearly defined anti-hero. It's a pattern established in westerns and carried down through into the early action movies of the seventies (Dirty Harry, The Driver), but it is a formula and style that is not so familiar nowadays. So many action movies today are so long, and contain so much unnecessary exposition and unnecessary action that they end up feeling bloated. Wheelman feels like a callback in the best possible way - every element of narrative and character is  pared down to exactly what is needed, and nothing more.  

And now to the part of the review where I offer thanks at the Church of Grillo.

I have been waiting for Frank Grillo to get a movie of his own, and Wheelman fits him like a glove.  A great character actor who can also do double duty as a laconic, minimalist badass ala McQueen and Eastwood, Grillo has proven his mettle in movies like Warrior and The Purge: Anarchy, but within Wheelman's limited confines, he really gets to show what he can do.

Ala Steven Knight's Locke (with Tom Hardy), this movie is largely based around Grillo on the phone. And it is a testament to his performance and the extremely tight script (the way his character is established through snippets of conversation is so naturalistic) that this character - who is a criminal - feels like a human being who - most importantly - may not get out of this alive.

Even on a laptop screen, this movie is incredibly tense. Rush's use of sound design, control of off-screen space and composition (his deployment of focus changes is particularly impressive and seamless) add to the atmosphere as Grillo's situation becomes more dire.

If you are looking for some solid thrills this weekend, check out Wheelman.

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