WHEELMAN: This Vehicle Needs Newer Parts
Can a stripped down action movie feel too simplistic for its own good? In the case of Wheelman, the answer is a resounding yes.
Films that are set in one place and/or have a limited amount of character have proven to be the most intriguing because of the various ways that filmmakers could have fun with the physical limitations that they showcase. Whether it’d be the opening long take of Gravity or the continuous long take of Hitchcock’s Rope, there are ways to make a film with a limited setting feel innovative.
Wheelman takes a simple concept involving a man trying to make it through the night and solve a heist gone wrong and sets in entirely in the man’s car. But other than that, the filmmakers don’t do any interesting filmmaking techniques with the concept they are showcasing. It feels rather workmanlike, which is a shame because other than its leading performance, there isn’t anything else that stands out.
Who Is Wheelman?
Wheelman follows a man named Wheelman (Frank Grillo) who spends the night acting as a getaway driver for bank robbers in order to support his daughter, and his ex-wife, who is fighting for custody of their daughter. But once he ends up being double crossed and is forced to abandon the bank robbers that he is driving by an anonymous caller, he finds himself in a race against time to find out who double crossed him.
In the meantime, Wheelman tries to keep his young daughter Katie (Caitlin Carmichael) in check since she is home alone with an older boy. But as the film progresses, Katie starts to become more involved in Wheelman’s desperate attempt to escape the high-stakes situation he is in.
A film that is a practical one man show has to rest entirely on its leading performance and thankfully, Wheelman is made watchable thanks to Frank Grillo’s commanding turn. Audiences may be familiar with his supporting role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as Crossbones and his role in the two Purge sequels, Anarchy and Election Year. But here, he is given a rare opportunity to carry a film on his shoulders and he knocks it out of the park. Even if his character, known only as Wheelman, isn’t the most likable guy, Grillo is able to give him three-dimensionality by portraying him as earnest. Wheelman’s job isn’t the most favorable but he only does it to support his family.
Since almost the entire film is set in a car and consists of Wheelman talking on the phone with other characters, Frank Grillo’s best acting moments are when his character is talking to Katie and acts as a normal, concerned father and Wheelman has to keep being headstrong to make sure the boy she’s with doesn’t harm her in any way. The tone of his voice in those conversations is calm yet stern unlike the conversations he has with those who are involved in the heist gone wrong which are much harsher and more vulgar.
As terrific as Frank Grillo’s performance is, though, the rest of the film is rather empty. Its story of a heist gone wrong is too simplistic and even with the gimmick of the film being shot and set almost entirely in a car, it is never really able to break out of its simplicity. It’s simplistic to the point where we never really figure out who the main villain is and why he is trying to screw with Wheelman and his family. We only hear the villain’s voice but never get to see him, which makes it hard for the audience to come up with a reason to root against him.
It may be a “turn your brain off” actioner, but even some of the best films that fall under that category have villains worth rooting against and who have clear cut methods to their madness. Thankfully, there are layers to the character of Wheelman to make him more likable so the audience at least has a protagonist to root for. If the main character wasn’t given any further dimensions, then Wheelman would be a terrible mess because why would audiences want to watch a film with vaguely developed characters they don’t care about?
Another reason its simplicity makes Wheelman a little hard to enjoy is because, since it contains high octane action, it would play much better on a big screen than on a smartphone or a tablet- which makes Wheelman another example of how distributor Netflix should adapt and give their films a traditional release strategy. Even if the film’s concept isn’t hard to analyze, because of how accessible it is, it still could’ve played very well in theaters.
Lastly, it manages to give shades of the movie Locke starring Tom Hardy which has the same concept and is a literal one man show. It also deals with a man whose family life and job are on the line. But even if Locke didn’t have any high octane action, it still is packed with tension thanks to its tight editing and the way that the phone conversations that the main character is having are written. So unlike Wheelman, Locke takes its simplistic concept and does exciting things with it by making it feel high octane even when there isn’t necessarily anything high octane about it.
Overall, Wheelman has an old engine in its vehicle but still has plenty of gas in the tank thanks to a commanding leading performance by Frank Grillo. Even if Wheelman never goes beyond being a typical genre film, Frank Grillo helps elevate it and is the only reason to give it a watch. It’s a shame that it never has much fun with its simplistic concept. But it might still please action fans regardless.
What is your favorite film with a limited setting? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.
Wheelman is currently streaming on Netflix.
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