Premium Rush (2012)
It looks like the silliest movie of the summer, and that includes a film where people travel through the center of the Earth as part of their daily commute. Premium Rush is going to have some inherent silliness given that it’s an action movie about bike messengers, plus there’s the whole title that seems like a time warp to the addled surfer-speak of the early 90s (radical, dude!). There’s just something silly about the world of bike messengers in a technologically advanced world. However, once the film gets started, silliness and all, I got completely caught up in it and went happily along for the ride.
Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bicycle messenger in New York City. He lives on the speed and rush of the job, riding a bicycle with fixed gears and no brakes. He’s still trying to get in good graces with Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), a fellow bike messenger and his ex-girlfriend. At the end of his shift, Wilee gets one last mission. He’s to deliver a very important envelope by 7:00. That envelope happens to carry a receipt for a very lot of money, which is the equivalent of a bank notice in some criminal circumstances. Police detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) tracks down Wilee and insists that he hand over the package. Monday, you see, has some very deep gambling debts to some very angry people, and he needs that package. Wilee refuses, races off, and Monday gives chase, using his police connections to try and snag the plucky cyclist.
Your presumptions of how silly the realm of bicycle messengers are get dashed quickly when you realize how insanely dangerous this profession can be. These guys, and gals, are speeding through downtown New York City traffic, careening around vehicles, and flying through lights. We see a few high-speed accidents but I wouldn’t be surprised if nearby hospitals have an entire organ donation pile labeled “bike messengers.” Director/co-writer David Koepp (Ghost Town) does a great job of making the audience feel the adrenaline rush of all that speed. You will get swept up in the thrills and forget all about the silliness. For a man who hasn’t directed action before, though written plenty of it, Koepp has a natural feel for developing his action and showcasing the cyclist’s impressive skills. Simply put, this is one movie where the action really speeds along.
The high-speed navigation of New York City is entertaining in and of itself, but Koepp goes one further and places Wilee in a series of dangerous predicaments where he has to determine his next split-second route. He mentally plays out the different scenarios, most of them involving him getting creamed by a car. It’s a fun visual quirk and a great opportunity for physical humor as well since some of the potential outcomes are quite worrisome. Koepp gooses his story with plenty of visual flourishes that gives Premium Rush an added degree of fun. The narrative also jumps back and forth linearly, fleshing out characters and giving us a better sense of how the pieces of the plot all snap together. It’s flashy and fun and thrilling with some great practical stunt work, and that’s more than enough to make you forget any misgivings you may have had with the premise.
Tonally, the film has a nice tongue-in-cheek sense of humor; it’s not enough to be self-aware or veer into meta territory, but it’s a concerted lightness, a springy attitude that further elevates the fun quotient. No more is this sense of humor better realized than with the villainous Bobby Monday. He’s a corrupt cop but he’s also hilariously off, just like every Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) character it seems. He’s a horrible gambler, and even he knows it, but he still comes back to the math-heavy Asian games that he’s not suited for. This character’s entire crazed demeanor has a comic desperation to it, which does temper his predatory danger. But you’ll never know what he’ll say next, or what strange, over-the-top delivery will accompany the next bon mot. In one scene, he complains about the trashy nature of primetime TV, bemoaning that he heard, during the family hour, some kid say “suck it.” He also laments how prevalent the term “douchebag” has become as an insult. It’s these little oddball touches that reminded me of the excellent 2003 action movie The Rundown, specifically Christopher Walken’s whacked out bad guy. Now there’s nothing that approaches the absurd poetry of Walken’s tooth fairy speech, but Shannon and his offbeat rhythms add another level of enjoyment.
I salute Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s rise in Hollywood circles, now among the ranks of spry action heroes. Gordon-Levitt has long been one of my favorite actors, delivering tremendous performances in films like Brick, Mysterious Skin, (500) Days of Summer, and of course last year’s cancer dramedy 50/50. He’s got a natural charisma to him that doesn’t seem manufactured, that isn’t overworked, and he delivers committed performance after committed performance. It’s easy to like this guy and be impressed with his performances. Now, Premium Rush isn’t going to going to shoot to the top of this guy’s resume, but he makes a credible action lead that’s easy to root for. He has an affable, devil-may-care attitude, and flashbacks to his early romance with Vanessa give a peak at how overwhelmingly charming the man can be when he turns it on. I will not admit whether I have a shrine devoted to Gordon-Levitt (or “Jo Go-Lev” as I prefer to call him).
My only major complain with the film is that it becomes a tad repetitious leading into its final act. All of this effort is spent on tracking down a ticket, so you are comfortable with it changing hands repeatedly. The good guys have it. The bad guy has it. And so on. I think the film would feel less repetitious if these changes in ownership didn’t happen so frequently. It feels like nobody can hang on to this thing for more than a few minutes.
For a summer awash in disappointment, it’s nice to come across a modest action movie that’s well-executed and just plain fun. Premium Rush delivers an end-of-summer blast of fun and some neat visual whimsy. Gordon-Levitt carries the film well and the great Michael Shannon punctuates the movie with such entertaining weirdness. I was laughing routinely, getting caught up in the rush of speed, and even coming to enjoy the various silly detours, like when an army of bicycle messengers is called out for action like some gang. This is not a movie to take too seriously, but much like Battleship, it’s a summer formula action movie that sticks to its guns and finds plenty of enjoyment. I never would have thought at the beginning of the summer that an action movie about bike messengers would be one of the most entertaining offerings, but there you have it. Koepp has crafted an enjoyable, thrilling, and just plain fun movie and a fine way to close out the summer.
Now back to my Jo Go-Lev shrine.
Nate’s Grade: B+