Frank Grillo is the kind of guy you would trust with your life — or at least he seems like it.
The 52-year-old New York City native has cultivated a career out of playing someone you’d want in your corner — a small-town police chief, a commanding officer in the Army, and even a Marvel super villain — on screens both big and small. (For what it’s worth, his character in “Purge 3: Election Year” also passionately dedicated his life to protecting the first female president. Do with that what you will.)
But the secret to Grillo’s success goes beyond mastering the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold act. There’s an authentic vulnerability to the characters he brings to life on screen, most recently MMA fighter-turned-trainer Alvey Kulina in the critically acclaimed DirecTV drama “Kingdom,” which concluded its four-season run earlier this year.
Grillo’s next project — the action-thriller “Wheelman,” coming to Netflix on Friday, Oct. 20 — finds the actor merging these talents, so to speak, playing a getaway driver in a bank heist gone horribly wrong. A man of few words (“I don’t chit-chat unless it’s about the job”), Grillo’s nameless character is forced into an impossible juggling act of dodging the cops, unraveling a deadly conspiracy and, time permitting, mending fences with his ex-wife through a series of explosive voicemails. (Seriously, when Grillo starts hurling F-bombs, you’d better duck and cover. Those things pack a punch.)
Physicality has never proven a challenge for Grillo, who cut his teeth on TV shows like “Prison Break” and “The Shield,” as well as films like “Minority Report” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” So it’s no surprise that while his “Wheelman” character’s hellish ordeal refuses to slow down until it arrives at a screeching halt in the film’s final moments, Grillo maintains a confident ease behind the wheel.
Projecting an air of intimidation while remaining seated is also no small feat, but you wouldn’t realize that by watching Grillo, who rarely hesitates to assert his authority despite spending most of “Wheelman” with his buns firmly planted in the driver’s seat. (You know, when he isn’t reaching to grab his rifle from the back of the car.) Of course, that’s not to say Grillo’s character doesn’t panic; if you focus on his eyes during the film’s most intense moments, you’ll see flickers of your own fear reflected back at you.
Throughout the driver’s harrowing 82-minute experience, the only person he knows he can trust is his 13-year-old daughter (played by Caitlin Carmichael), who finds herself unwittingly mixed up in her father’s shady predicaments. She’s constantly in need of comfort and reassurance — as is the audience, frankly — and it’s in these father-daughter moments that Grillo shows off his emotional range, the type of powerful performance you might attribute to the actor being a father of three in real life.
If you’ll permit a few more puns, Wheelman is the ideal vehicle for a leading man like Grillo, who does virtually all the heavy lifting in writer-director Jeremy Rush’s film. It’s a performance that grips the viewer so tight, escape is virtually impossible — though we have a feeling you’ll want to remain strapped in until this ride comes to a complete stop.