MoviesFrank Grillo plays tough guys and he plays them well.

Intense, often broken men a split second away from either embracing you in a warm hug or lashing out in a barrage of f-bombs and violence. But under that thick layer of machismo, you’ll find compassion. Someone desperate to do right, but destined to take the wrong path time and time again.

His role as the unnamed getaway driver in the new claustrophobic Netflix thriller WHEELMAN is no exception.

Set mostly inside the confines of a roaming BMW, Grillo plays a driver evading bullets and bad guys after a mysterious phone call alters the course of what should be a simple bank robbery. Working with a new crew (including a brief but memorable turn from a mohawk rocking Shea Whigham) the Wheelman is ordered by an unnamed caller to take the money and run. It doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s been unknowingly sandwiched in the middle of something he didn’t sign up for.

Despite an extremely familiar plot — think PHONE BOOTH without the phone booth, BURIED without the box, or LOCKE without a grumbly Tom Hardy — first time writer-director Jeremy Rush manages to maintain a fairly brisk pace despite telling a slow burn story that only sporadically erupts into action.

That brisk pace is mostly thanks to Grillo. As mentioned, Grillo often plays broken characters often led down the wrong path despite the urge to play it straight. So often the tough guy, Grillo could be pegged as a one-note actor. I can’t deny the argument. I also can’t deny that what Grillo does isn’t extremely effective.

Grillo is gifted. The kind of guy who continuously looks like he’s on the verge of a brain aneurysm. His stress levels are on full display here — ranging from quiet moments of annoyance during conversations with his daughter and wife, to sudden bursts of rage toward various threats

On the technical side, the (thankfully brief) 82-minute movie manages to feel both simplistic yet ambitious, finding clever, often nifty ways to keep the visuals fresh both inside and outside the Wheelman’s cramped quarters. Set in downtown Boston, cinematographer Juan Azpiroz (WOLVES, SAVAGE GRACE) creates beauty in seedy alleyways, sparse city tunnels and the bright fluorescent lights of parking garages.

Things derail more in the third act when the Wheelman’s wife and daughter are pulled into the fold, leading to an ending that’s both dumb, a bit confusing, yet kind of sweet.

I was often reminded of THE HIRE, a series of big budget short films from BMW. WHEELMAN often feels like a call-back to the Clive Owen-led shorts directed by big name talents like Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie and John Frankenheimer.

Filmmaker Jeremy Rush isn’t yet among the greats but the surprisingly inventive, often captivating WHEELMAN makes him at least one to watch.

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To Stream or Not To Stream: Recommended
A getaway driver is double-crossed during a bank robbery gone wrong. With his family on the line, he races to find out exactly who betrayed him before time runs out.

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