We all like to root for the underdog and there is, perhaps, no better filmic example of an underdog story than “Rocky.” Although it is not about a boxer, writer-director Paul Starkman’s debut feature, “Wheels,” offers up a similar vibe and does so from the opening credits. There’s something about the brassy music and the title crawling across the screen that brings the Stallone classic to mind and we cheer for the hero, Max (Arnstar), just as we do for Rocky himself.
Rather than a wannabe boxer, Max is a wannabe DJ. He’s not taking low level fights for little money as the movie begins, Max is taking low level (read: children’s) birthday parties for little money. He’s got the heart, just like Rocky, and he’s got someone who could teach him, just like Rocky. As the movie continues, Max even puts in some work for a small time criminal, yup, just like Rocky. There are other similarities as well, but the point is made.
Crucially though, that point isn’t that “Wheels” is a remake of “Rocky,” but rather that there’s some intrinsic sense of familiarity to “Wheels.” Part of that may be finding similar moments or story beats from the earlier film, but part of is just the tale of a young person trying to live out his dreams; of pursuing his goals and making mistakes on the way. It is something which a lot of people recognize.
One of the most interesting elements of the movie is the relationship Max his with his brother, Terry (Joshua Boone). Just out of prison, Terry offers a version of what could happen to Max. Over the course of the movie we see Terry struggle (like Max) to stay on the right side of the law. We see both of them come face-to-face with decisions that could find each behind bars (behind bars again in Terry’s case).
**minor spoiler below and some straying from traditional review-iness**
Terry tries hard to do the right thing for part of the film, but finds himself slipping back into his old ways, going back to the small time criminal Oscar (Kareem Savinon), whom he worked for and whom he went to prison to protect. We know Terry is going to end up in trouble during the movie, but we hope that because the movie gods are taking Terry as a sacrifice, they’ll leave Max alone.
There are actually two potential readings of the film I couldn’t get out of my head as this aspect of the story played out.
I think it’s possible to convince yourself that Terry doesn’t actually exist. In the first version of this, one could argue that Terry is an aspect of Max’s personality, one that goes bad, and so everything we see that Terry does is actually something Max is doing (Terry was less in real prison, than imprisoned within Max’s mind). In the second version, Terry is a “Sliding Doors” take on Max. Here, we would be seeing two different realities play out at once, one where the “good” version of the character, Max, tends to make the right choices and tends to have the better life for it. The bad version, “Terry,” tends to make the wrong choice and have a worse life for it.
It would require another viewing of the film and a deep analysis of each scene in which the two men appear together to build either of these arguments. There may be some stretches of logic required to make it happen, but at minimum we’re undeniably meant to view Terry as where Max could end up, so maybe the stretches aren’t all that great.
***end minor spoilers and not quite review-y bits***
Even if you didn’t read the above paragraphs for fear of hearing analysis that doesn’t ruin anything but gives away aspects of the plot, there is an important takeaway – “Wheels” gets you thinking. Starkman has given us a movie that, for lack of a better term, gets your brain spinning.
A movie about DJing, or aspiring to DJ, “Wheels” definitely offers up some great and varied music as well. Watching Max, or his would-be mentor, Monty (Ioan Delice), in action is joyful. Part of this is the look on Max’s face as it is happening, and part of it is the music itself that we’re getting.
That smile Arnstar gives as Max when he’s in the moment, whether it’s in the DJ booth or trying to impress a girl, Liza (Shyrley Rodriguez), is infectious. His more somber moods, particularly as he’s working his day job or trying to care for his aging grandmother (Dorothi Fox), are just as palpable. Throughout the movie, we feel what Max feels and it’s powerful.
Lastly, it must be noted that “Wheels” is in black and white. While at one time this sort of decision would have to do with cost, in the age of digital cinema, one assumes that it is purely an artistic choice. If so, it is a great one. After a minute of watching the movie, one can’t even fathom it being in color. The Brooklyn in which Max lives out his days is a vibrant one, it is one full of color and life, but it almost feels as though it would be cheapened to see it in color. The music and the direction and the actors bring the color to the image rather than vice versa.
“Wheels” may not end with a prizefight for a championship belt. It may not end in an arena with thousands of onlookers. Even so, it does offer the sense that Max has been through the ring-er and come out on the other side not unbloodied. It is an underdog tale full of courage and strength and gives us all something to which we can aspire.
photo credit: 1091 Pictures