If you’ve ever lived in a big city and had to move across several locations in it, it’s likely you’ve needed to drive or ride a car, a machine that is as convenient as it is stressful. Especially if you find yourself in a scenario with no escape. It’s a place where you can find solitude from the world’s noise, but can quickly become a prison chamber where the city is in charge of your torture. Writer-director Jeremy Rush takes that love-hate relationship some of us have with our vehicles and utilizes it as the context for his action thriller Wheelman.
At first, everything seems straightforward enough. A criminal driver (the eponymous Wheelman, played by Frank Grillo) is hired to deliver and extract two robbers in a heist. The dialog is kept simple, but it does an effective job establishing the tense circumstances in the story. This is shown most prominently in a scene where Wheelman experiences an awkward conversation with the two robbers, a situation that’s very easy to relate to. It’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being trapped in a box with people you barely know, but have to tolerate for the sake of an important objective. The aforementioned heist goes haywire and ignites one hell of a cat and mouse dynamic.
For most of the runtime, the only character you see on screen is Wheelman, and for such a dicey setting to work, you need someone with the proper charisma and intensity to keep you at the edge of your seat. Fortunately, Frank Grillo is up to the challenge, and delivers a confident performance that makes use of understated silence to inform the character and a good dose of movie star showmanship to make the more bombastic moments sing.
As the plot moves forward, it reveals a number of details that make you realize there’s more to the Wheelman and his world than it initially meets the eye. In fact, you even start to question if you should be rooting for him in the first place. He’s a negligent father, a reckless adrenaline junkie and a delinquent, but Grillo gives him enough nobility to not make him straight-up loathsome. This protagonist is far from a hero, but it’s someone you definitely like spending time with. Every reveal and beat makes you want to know more about his past and what makes him tick.
The movie’s most interesting narrative choice is framing the cinematography from the Wheelman’s car’s perspective, essentially treating it as a character and even as a temporary protagonist (in some scenes, the camera stays with the car when Wheelman is out of it). It’s a way of saying that, yes, Wheelman is having a hard time, but so is the car. They’re both stuck with each other, for better or worse.
Jeremy Rush displays a rich and dark urban environment that’s very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s work. There’s a clear sense of size and geography that, despite its huge scope, comes with a constant claustrophobia meant to symbolize Wheelman’s conflict. It’s a mostly quiet and lonely place, and that’s precisely why the action scenes hit so hard. Even in the moments meant to provide room to breathe, you can’t get rid of the sensation that danger is lurking around every corner.
Although the film’s slow emerging complexity is most certainly appreciated, it can get in the way of the information that needs to be conveyed. There’s a point where keeping track of the “whos”, “whats” and “whens” can get overwhelming because a good chunk of the characters are nondescript gangsters whose relationships with Wheelman are mostly defined by backstory rather than events we see unfold before us. The only secondary character that’s worth mentioning is Katie (Caitlin Carmichael), the protagonist’s daughter, who has a rather subversive role and even a small, but resonant arc that elevates the whole picture.
Wheelman ultimately takes advantage of its own narrative limitations to emerge as a bold, clever and effective star vehicle for Frank Grillo, hinting at a promising career for Jeremy Rush.