It’s such a cool thing to see an actor known mostly for supporting roles knocking it out the park when he gets the chance to take the lead.
Frank Grillo has been a first-rate contributor to quality fare such as “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Warrior,” “End of Watch” and “The Grey.” You might know him from the “Purge” movies or as Crossbones in the Marvel cinematic universe.
I can’t think of a performance when Grillo hasn’t been interesting and effective — and he’s never been better than in “Wheelman,” a lean and tight thriller in which Grillo’s character spends the great bulk of the movie behind the wheel, navigating the darker streets of Boston neighborhoods while negotiating his way through an endless series of phone calls, not to mention the occasional attack on his life.
It’s a little like a cross between “Drive,” the great noir crime thriller from 2011 starring Ryan Gosling as a stuntman and getaway driver, and “Locke,” the brilliant 2014 drama in which Tom Hardy spends nearly the entire movie on a long drive, making and taking phone calls with the key players in a life.
“Wheelman” isn’t quite at the level of those two movies (two of my favorite films of this century), but this Netflix original from writer-director Jeremy Rush is one of the most gripping and entertaining action mysteries of the year.
Grillo’s unnamed character (we’ll just call him Wheelman) recently served a three-year stint in prison, and he’s working off his debt to the Boston mob family that looked after his ex-wife and daughter while he was away. His job is to drive the getaway vehicle, no questions asked, whenever the phone rings and he hears a certain voice.
One night the Wheelman picks up a couple of bank robbers, including a pushy and inquisitive guy (Shea Whigham) who keeps pushing Wheelman’s buttons to the point where it seems bloodshed is inevitable. Tensions cool for a moment, but as the robbery unfolds, Wheelman gets a call telling him he needs to leave the two men at the scene of the crime — because they’re planning to kill him at the drop point.
This is the first of many situations requiring Wheelman to make a snap decision — and if he’s wrong, he’s most likely a dead man. He knows he’s being double-crossed, but maybe he’s actually being triple-crossed.
In between some terrific chase sequences and some creatively filmed confrontations (at one point, it’s as if the viewer is sitting in the car, watching the Wheelman take on a gang of bad guys, and the sounds of violence are muffled because the windows are closed), the Wheelman is on the phone with his ex-wife and his teenage daughter and even at one point the daughter’s boyfriend.
Of course, none of these characters have any idea what Wheelman is dealing with, even as he argues with his daughter about her curfew, tells the boyfriend he’s got a 9 p.m. curfew, and pleads with his wife not to take full custody of their girl. (If she knew what was really going on, Wheelman wouldn’t stand much of a chance in court.)
The domestic detours initially seem like comic relief — or at least family drama relief — but as Wheelman sinks deeper and deeper into the bloody quagmire involving the robbery and a bag of $250,000 and trying to figure out who’s figuratively taking him for a ride, he realizes his family could also …
Well. I’ll say no more, other than to make sure you hit “Pause” if you have to walk away from the Netflix stream for a moment, because you don’t want to miss a trick here.
Netflix presents a film written and directed by Jeremy Rush. No MPAA rating. Running time: 82 minutes. Premieres Friday on Netflix.