Anybody remember Quicksilver starring Kevin Bacon? It’s one of those movies from the 1980s that’s pretty much forgotten – and a feature that Bacon is quoted as saying was the “lowest point of his career” – but it was one of those movies I saw a number of times on HBO in my youth. In the film, Bacon is a young hotshot stockbroker who loses his and his parents’ life savings only to start over as a bicycle messenger.
Premium Rush has a similar concept, only our hero, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), has a law degree but won’t take the Bar exam; he loves riding his bike way too much. He doesn’t want to be constrained to a suit-and-tie job. Instead, Wilee works as a bicycle messenger in Manhattan, where he gets to play daredevil, speeding through rush hour traffic, sometimes to the tune of seventy dollars on a bad day. So much risk for so little reward, why bother? The ultimate goal may not be in money earned but the adrenaline rush of it all. And slowing down isn’t an option. “Brakes are death,” Wilee tells the audience in narration. That thought is analogous to the spirtual-surfing-bankrobbing philosophy of Bodhi in Point Break.
In a summer full of chases and explosions, it may come as a surprise that Premium Rush sports some of the best. With a dozen stunt bicyclists and a number of CGI artists, writer-director David Koepp shows the riders zigging and zagging fearlessly through NYC traffic. Using a combination of variable camera angles and point-of-view shots, the best do-or-die moments come when our hero pre-visualizes ways to avoid accidents at a busy intersection. Some of the alternatives are quite funny in a Looney Tunes cartoon sort of way. That may explain why Wilee is nicknamed the “Coyote Man,” on account of Wile E. Coyote.
The film gets its title from the extra charge for fast delivery job. A “premium rush” is just that. When FedEx isn’t fast enough bicycle messengers fly down crowded streets with reckless abandon, only to be the ire of cabbies and commuters. Wilee is regarded as the best messenger in Manhattan, pedaling furiously on a bike that has neither gearshifts nor brakes. In a city of 1500 messengers competition is fierce, but there is also a solidarity that exists in the subculture that readily embraces the cacophony of horns honking at them.
As far as the story goes, the conflict revolves around a ticket that needs to be delivered to Chinatown before 7:00 p.m. The reason: to help in the smuggling of a young woman’s son from China to the United States. The problem: a crooked cop in debt up to his eyeballs, Bobby Monday (a scene-chewing Michael Shannon), needs it to pay his gambling debts. Along the way, Wilee’s on-again off-again girlfriend, Vanessa (Diana Ramirez), and Manny (Wole Parks), both of whom work at the same messenger service as him, become involved in the delivery, despite not knowing why a third party would covet such a ticket.
The audience does know, however, as Koepp uses flashbacks to provide exposition in a non-linear style. At least three times this technique is used and there is a little overlap from events that have already happened in the film. But the movie never loses momentum. At a slim 90 minutes, the flashbacks aren’t mere distraction but rather a way to keep the story fresh, despite its simplicity.
If you were hoping for a sophisticated drama with depth and not a quick-paced thriller, you’ve probably purchased a ticket to the wrong movie. Premium Rush isn’t devoid of good performances, however. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has been one of the most consistent young actors in Hollywood, having played a victim of sexual abuse (Mysterious Skin), a teenage gumshoe (Brick), and a cancer patient (50/50). Here he plays Wilee as a determined young man who embraces the daily grind of doing something most of do as leisure, and that’s ride a bicycle. It wouldn’t surprise me if he were sold on the idea of a bicycle messenger disrupting the hero archetype, or maybe the thought he would get to spend months training to ride bikes at ridiculous speeds. (Maybe he took the training wheels off too soon: If you stay through the closing credits, you’ll see the documented aftermath of Gordon-Levitt’s injury as the result of striking the back of a taxi.)
The other good performance is Michael Shannon hamming it up as a crooked cop. His facial expressions are so resounding he doesn’t even need dialogue. Disheveled with a rumpled suit, he provides the film with a nice array of comic moments. You would think he would be the one named Wilee, unable to apprehend Gordon-Levitt’s Roadrunner.
David Koepp may be prolific as an A-list screenwriter, having written adaptations for Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds and Mission: Impossible, but some of his directorial efforts are also worth mentioning, including Stir of Echoes and Ghost Town. Just added to his resume, Premium Rush is more likely to become a cult hit on home video as its marketing and late summer release (originally it was to have been released back in January) provides little fanfare.
And that’s too bad, because unlike a lot of summer features this one delivered on time.
Director: David Koepp Writer: David Koepp and John Camps Notable Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Diana Ramirez, Wole Parks, Jamie Chung
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!