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Our five favorite movie wheelmen

Our five favorite movie wheelmen (photo)

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I don’t know how much real world demand there is for wheelmen, but it’s a burgeoning field in the movies. It seems like there’s someone always in the movies who needs a dangerous package transported or a steady-nerved getaway driver for a heist. That’s certainly true this week, thanks to a movie featuring a new, and excellent movie wheelman: Ryan Gosling‘s Driver from Nicolas Winding Refn‘s “Drive.”

In honor of Gosling’s hammer-wielding, tire-squealing performance, we decided this was the perfect time to pick our five favorite wheelmen in movie history. Our qualifications for potential candidates were simple. They had to make their living as a driver — so car thieves were out. They had to be willing to take dirty or illegal jobs — so professional truckers were gone too. And they couldn’t actually participate in the heists themselves. As Gosling’s Driver says, “I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun. I drive.”

Damn right. And so do these guys.


Lucas Doolin
From “Thunder Road” (1958)

Directed by Arthur Ripley
Preferred Ride: Custom 1950 Ford

“How rough do you want it?” a racketeer asks independent moonshiner Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) as he tries to intimidate him into joining his syndicate. Now, Lucas Doolin is played by Robert Mitchum, so the answer should be obvious: plenty rough. Mitchum’s response? A karate chop to the neck. Doolin is a great wheelman, unflappable and resourceful. When a guy tries to run him off the road, he takes the cigarette dangling ever so suavely from his lips and flicks it in the other driver’s face, blinding him and sending him careening into a canyon. His car’s cool too, a tricked out 1950 Ford with enough gadgets to make James Bond jealous. It’s got detachable bumpers, oil slicks, enough horsepower to plow through roadblocks, and lots of room for moonshine. Things don’t work out too well for Doolin in the end — things rarely do for movie wheelmen — but caught between the racketeers and the revenuers (i.e. the U.S. Treasury Department looking to put a halt to untaxed backwoods’ moonshining) he never yields to the pressure, much less to pedestrians in the crosswalk.


Frank Martin
From “The Transporter” (2002)
Directed by Corey Yuen
Preferred Ride: BMW E38 (Audi A8 in the two sequels)

Professional transporter Frank Martin (Jason Statham) has so many rules. Rule number one: never change the deal. Rule number two: no names. Rule number three: never open the package. Really, the only rules Frank doesn’t acknowledge are the rules of physics; when this guy gets behind the wheel, cars do magical things. Movie wheelmen always seem to have codes to protect them from their own dark impulses. They establish guidelines to live by so they can sleep at night telling themselves they’re not doing anything wrong. The great part about Frank is he has rules, but he always breaks them. For three consecutive movies, Frank opened the package, or learned the names of his employers, and it always ended up getting him into trouble. Awesome, gravity-defying trouble.


The Driver
From “The Driver” (1978)

Directed by Walter Hill
Preferred Ride: Late model Ford LTD

Walter Hill’s “The Driver” is one of the most efficient action movies ever made. Everything about it is stripped down to the bare essentials; Hill is like a chef who’s been dared to make a delicious meal with the fewest ingredients possible. The title seems plain, but it’s the only title that would fit a film in which nothing and no one is named; not the city where it’s set, nor the hero who prowls its streets as the ultimate getaway man. He’s simply called The Driver, and he’s played by Ryan O’Neal. Time and again he slips through the fingers of The Detective (Bruce Dern), who decides to blackmail a couple of crooks into hiring The Driver for a job that’s really a set-up. The Driver is awesome because from almost frame one of the film, he is trapped: by late partners, by crooked cops, and by bad luck. But no matter how bad things get, he never flinches, and he always finds an escape; no wonder he’s the best wheelman in the business. Because there’s so little dialogue, especially from The Driver himself, we’re constantly stuck behind the action, always guessing his next move. But the man never fails to surprise us. Like Gosling’s Driver, he has a reputation for not carrying guns, and in the movie’s best scene we find out why.


Kowalski
From “Vanishing Point” (1971)
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian
Preferred Ride: Dodge Challenger

“Vanishing Point” begins at its story’s chronological end, with a bleary-eyed wheelman named Kowalski (Barrry Newman) driving full-speed toward a police roadblock. The rest of the film takes place in flashback, which is appropriate for the story of a man who can’t stop living in the past. Kowalski delivers cars, and though his latest package, a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T, isn’t due in San Francisco until Monday, he vows to get it there by Saturday afternoon. Exactly what made Kowalski such a determined, zonked out speed-freak is left ambiguous, but the snippets we see of jobs and loves lost point to an accumulation of assorted tragedies that ultimately became too tough to bear. Likewise the accumulation of time since “Vanishing Point”‘s 1971 premiere has only enhanced the impact of Kowalski’s existential plight. Today the image of a world-weary driver running out of road suggests so many things: the end of the myth of the American West, the failure of the political idealism of the 1960s, and the last gasps of the cinema’s New Hollywood years. Plus there’s Kowalski himself, this tragic figure who’s addicted to speed and doesn’t know why. Maybe he’s just trying to stay ahead of the ghosts.


The Bandit
From “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977)
Directed by Hal Needham
Preferred Ride: Pontiac Trans Am

A lot of these wheelmen are strong, silent types. They’re all business because that’s what driving is for them: a business. The Bandit (Burt Reynolds), on the other hand, drives for the thrill, gleefully accepting an impossible bet to haul bootleg beer from Texas to Georgia specifically because it’s impossible. Nothing fazes him, not a hitchhiking runaway bride (Sally Field) who tries to steal his beloved Trans Am, not even a chance lunch counter meeting with the man hot on his tail, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). As Field puts it, Bandit just has a “lyrical way of cutting through the bullshit.” And not to get too lyrical or bullshitty on you myself, but I do think there’s something almost primordial about the Bandit’s appeal. Cars represents a lot more than a means of transportation in this country: they’re a symbol of freedom. The Bandit, a perfect figure of pure escapist fantasy, is the only guy on this list who really seems to get that. And that’s what the Bandit’s ride and his carefree attitude represent. When he’s behind the wheel of that Trans Am, he’s free.


Who’s your favorite movie wheelman? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Inauguration Alternative

Bill Murray On Repeat

It's a movie "Murray-thon" all-day Friday on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs courtesy of GIPHY

Democrats, Republicans and Millennials agree: 2017 is shaping up to be a spectacle — a spectacle that really kicks into high gear this Friday with the presidential inauguration. Not only will the new POTUS swear in, but all the Country’s highest offices will be filled. It’s a daunting prospect, and to feel a little anxious about it is only normal. But if your anxiety is snowballing into panic, we have a solution:
Bill Murray.

He’s the human embodiment of a mental “Happy Place”, and there’s really no problem he can’t solve. So, with that in mind, how about we all set aside reality for a moment and let Bill take the pain away by imagining a top-shelf White House cabinet filled exclusively by his signature characters. Here are a few hypothetical appointments for your consideration…

Secretary of Defense:
Bill Murray from Stripes

His incompetence is balanced by charm, and dumb luck is inexplicably on his side. America could do worse.

Secretary of State:
Bill Murray from Lost In Translation

A seasoned globetrotter steeped in regional traditions who has the respect of the whole wide world. And he kills Costello in karaoke, which is very important.

Press Secretary:
Bill Murray from Ghostbusters

“Cats and dogs, living together. Mass hysteria.” Dude knows how to brief a room.

Secretary of Health and Human Services:
Bill Murray from What About Bob.

A doctor-approved people person who knows that progress is measured in baby steps.

Secretary of Energy:
Bill Murray from Groundhog Day

Let’s be honest, this world is going to need a lot of do-overs.

Feeling better? Hold on to that bliss. And enjoy a healthy alternative to the inauguration brouhaha with multiple Murrays all Friday long in an IFC movie marathon including Kingpin, Zombieland, Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters II.

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Home Run

Hank Azaria Gets Thrown A Curve Ball

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Unless you’ve somehow missed every episode of the Simpsons since 1989, then surely you know that Hank Azaria is one of the most important character actors of our time. He’s so prolific and his voice is so dynamic that he’s responsible for more iconic personalities than most folks realize. Basically, he’s the great and powerful Oz — except that when you pull back the curtain the truth is actually more impressive. And now Hank is coming to IFC to bring yet another character to the TV pop culture hive mind in the new series Brockmire. Check out the trailer below.

Based on the following Funny or Die short and co-starring Amanda Peet, Brockmire follows the story of imploded major league sportscaster Jim Brockmire as he tries to resurrect his career by calling plays for a floundering minor league team in a podunk town.

The series is written by Joel Church-Cooper (Undateable) and produced by Funny or Die’s Mike Farah and Joe Farrell, meaning that there’s funny in front of the camera, funny behind the camera–funny all around. Sounds like a ball to us.

Brockmire premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Car Notes

Portlandia On People Who Can’t Park

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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If flagrant bad parking takes nerve, then retaliatory note writing takes neuroses. Watch Fred and Carrie take passive aggression to next level in Car Notes, the new Portlandia web series presented by Subaru. The first episode is yours right here and now, and you can see every installment of Car Notes anytime online, on the IFC app and on demand.

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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