Action star Frank Grillo is no stranger to taking the role of a badass. You may recognize him from “The Purge” series, the critically acclaimed sports drama “Warrior” or his villainous role as Crossbones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in his gripping new action film, “Wheelman,” Grillo puts — dare I say it — the pedal to the metal.
Grillo takes the lead role in “Wheelman” as an unnamed man trying to get back on his feet after serving time in prison. He works as a getaway driver, but is double-crossed during a bank robbery gone wrong. When his family is threatened by an unknown caller who blackmails him, he races to find out exactly who the blackmailer is and who betrayed him.
Although the story sounds familiar to the “man-and-his-car” film genre, the Netflix original uses unique framing to tell the narrative. With a runtime of 82 minutes, “Wheelman” is shot almost entirely from the perspective of inside the car — which makes for a tense, claustrophobic and immersive cinematic journey. As the viewer, you take a front (and back) seat to the protagonist’s dilemma as he avoids the dangers that come with being involved in the criminal underworld.
Whether the car is shot at, T-boned or being chased, you feel all of the intensity, fear and paranoia due to the effective sound mixing and tight cinematography; the meticulousness of these two technical factors makes the action sequences in this film fun and exhausting all at the same time.
However, this is not an all-out action film. In fact, one might say it’s a thriller with spurts of action in it. Much of “Wheelman’s” plot is similar to Steven Knight’s “Locke” in that both protagonists are confined to their cars and engage in cellphone conversations as a way to advance the story. In “Wheelman’s” case, Grillo’s character spends much of his time speaking with his estranged 13-year-old daughter — fearing for her safety.
Grillo, who is used to getting involved in more physical roles, said it wasn’t easy acting in a car for most of the film. Nonetheless, the “Winter Soldier” actor took on the dark, eponymous character perfectly. In a movie with a handful of characters that rests solely on the shoulders of its protagonist, Grillo sells the raw emotions of a man with a dark past trying to do right by his family. The role felt quite right for the Bronx native, who said he could relate to the character’s motives.
“I knew a lot of hustlers who ended up in jail. And when you get out of jail, in your late 40s, early 50s, [you feel] there’s nothing to do with your life. And that’s the kind of man [my character] was,” said Grillo, who also produced the film.
“The only good thing in his life was his kid. To me, this is a father-daughter story — and I have three kids, so that was the connective tissue for me at all times.”
No film is without sin, though. In “Wheelman,” there are minor plot holes that diminish the flow of the narrative. However, I feel like the plot holes were intentional so the story could be told from within the car. (You’ll know what I mean when you see it.)
Other than this minor issue, director-writer Jeremy Rush had a terrific debut with a thrilling film. I came into the movie thinking it would be terrible due to its short runtime; usually films that are shorter than 90 minutes are crammed and sloppy. But 82 minutes is the perfect length for this visual experience. So, for fans of action, suspense or movies with a twist: you are in for a treat with this Frank Grillo thriller.
“Wheelman” hits Netflix Oct. 20.