Classic Film Review: THE Wheelman movie — Ryan O’Neal is “The Driver” (1978)

It’s an iconic set up, a “Show us what you’ve got” moment common to a whole lot of movies about “wheelmen,” the guys who drive the getaway car.

The hoods have shown up in a little old lady Mercedes, an orange 1970 280 S. They flinch at the getaway driver’s asking price.

“How do we know you’re that good?”

“The Driver” barely gives the orange import a second glance and snaps “Get in.”

The “audition” comes after we’ve seen “The Driver,” played by Ryan O’Neal, run a string of police cruisers into walls in an opening chase. Plainly, the would-be robbers missed that. So he proceeds to terrorize them by dismantling that Merc, bumper by bumper, door-by-snapped-off-door, deftly screeching down the lanes of a parking garage, popping the stems off fire hose valves on each pillar as he power slides, drifts and rams walls for their benefit.

It’s a representative of the genre now, but writer-director Walter Hill’s minimalist jewel wasn’t appreciated by critics or audiences when it came out. Over forty years later, we can see it for the Urtext that it was. O’Neal’s tightlipped, unflappable wheelman inspired “Transporter” movies, a whole Clive Owen ad campaign (“The Hire”) featuring famous filmmakers, Ryan Gosling’s “Drive,” “Wheelman,” “Baby Driver” and a few Quentin Tarantino movies and car movie moments to boot.

Nobody has a name, everybody’s a “type” or archetype. There’s The Driver (O’Neal), the Detective (Bruce Dern, funny and hateful) hunting the guy he nicknames “Cowboy,” the Fed’s combative underling (Matt Clark), The Connection (a “go between” played by Ronee Blakley, a Robert Altman favorite), The Player, aka an alibi and woman of mystery played by Isabelle Adjani, and assorted mugs, thugs and trigger men who find themselves in need of our anti-hero, who could have coined the phrase, “Drive it like you stole it.”

This isn’t “Bullitt,” with its signature race through Greater San Francisco. It’s not as deft and delicate as the spectacular Euro car getaways of the films of Luc Besson & others — “Transporter” or “Ronin” — often stunt-directed Rémy Julienne.

No, these are overpowered Yank Tanks from Detroit’s Golden Age of Gas Waste and Planned Obsolescence. LTDs etc. stolen (all you needed was a screwdriver) and put through heedless abuse of automatic transmissions, worm-gear steering, drum brakes and leaf spring suspensions as he ignores LA red lights and barrels down every downtown street, alley or parking garage. Stunt coordinator Everett Creach and a dozen drivers put anything Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham did with “Smoke and the Bandit” Trans Ams (and a Firebird here) to shame.

O’Neal, a light comedian and pretty boy romantic lead, was never as cool or as tough as he is here, a man of mad skills and few words.

His performance and this film became the model of how these guys are portrayed on the screen — quiet, focused, mistrusting and mysterious professionals.

The plot is paper thin, the action explosive — double crosses and set ups, chases and shoot outs. A favorite moment, our Driver gets the drop on a double-crosser by shooting him through the rolled up car window of the open door he’s standing behind.

He stole it. He’s not worried about replacing the glass, and Hill’s not going to need a retake.

Hill, fresh off his first sleeper hit, “Hard Times,” backed by two future heavyweight producers (Lawrence Gordon of LARGO, Frank Marshall of Team Spielberg), could weather a film that didn’t draw crowds and didn’t have the sort of enthusiastic reviews of his even brawnier “Hard Times.” He would go from this to make “The Warriors,” a cult film that has grown in stature and is pretty much considered the quintessential Walter Hill Film — tough guys, tougher broads and two-fisted action.

But “The Driver” has also grown in stature. Hill was never more bankable than when he leaped from “The Warriors” and “Long Riders” and peaked with the blockbuster action buddy comedy “48 Hrs.” Hill’s lean, archetypal style, translated to Vietnam allegories (“Southern Comfort”) and Westerns or crime pictures (“Johnny Handsome”), became something everybody growing up watching those films wanted to copy when they got to make their own movies.

From Tarantino to Besson to Nicolas Winding Refn, Hollywood to Hong Kong, Seoul to the South of France, when the underworld needs to get someplace, they’re calling a version of “The Driver,” someone they don’t dare ask the wrong question.

“How do we know you’re that good?

Rating: R, violence, profanity

Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Isabelle Adjani, Bruce Dern, Matt Clark, Felice Orlandi and Ronee Blakley

Credits: Scripted and directed by Walter Hill.

Running time: 1:30


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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