by George Sax
A Hellbent Hermes on Wheels
David Koepp’s Premium Rush, a propulsively amped urban actioneer, could just turn out to be more than a highly proficient and tense entertainment. One can envision it becoming something of a social menace. The bicycle daredeviltry it depicts could, one supposes, inspire overconfident jackass attempts at replication, despite the movie’s coy warning during the end credits. It scarcely bears remarking that there are already ample numbers of bike riders on the public byways defying traffic regs and ordinary sense. And the movie’s technical craft and art may make the virtually impossible seem within the scope of foolhardy amateurs. On the other hand, motorists who are already vexed by bicyclists’ more ill-advised riding habits may be even less accommodating after this picture.
A situation that’s legitimately worrisome, to be sure, but beyond the scope of this department’s responsibility, which is, of course, to address Premium Rush, a rather vapid uncommunicative title. Although it unquestionably and repeatedly provides rushes, meticulously staging dynamically exciting chase sequences on New York City streets, the movie mostly maintains an expert control of its developing tension throughout its relatively modest length. It delivers the vicarious experience of thrills that movies have provided since their origins, but with contemporary technical artifice to facilitate its visceral impacts and breakneck pacing.
In its calmer moments, Premium Rush also provides a serviceable, sometimes clever storyline (from a script by Koepp and John Kamps) that centers on the increasingly perilous plight of Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an audacious Manhattan bike messenger. He finds himself endangered as a result of an ill-fated attempt at delivery of an envelope in Chinatown.
In a brief early voiceover, Wilee tells us that he’s one of 1,500 bike messengers in New York, for whom “pedestrians are a menace and cabs are killers.” Watching his high-speed, thread-the-needle zig-zagging through and around Gotham foot and motor traffic it’s hard to apportion that menace. This visually hyperbolic, heart-in-the-mouth bike racing on the city’s streets is the foundation of Premium Rush’s frisson-laden fun.
Wilee has dispensed with bike brakes because they encourage a hazardous laxness, or so he argues. He’s a messenger because he can’t bear being a suit in an office. He’s escaped from that fate, despite a Columbia University law degree, and into the rush inducing, possibly danger-addicted life of the streets and two wheels. A co-worker tells Wilee’s alienated girlfriend (Dania Ramirez), another messenger, that he’s got a death wish, but the filmmakers aren’t interested in psychological profiles, any more than they’re scrupulously concerned with physics-based plausibilities or common social patterns. They wanted to keep their vehicle moving and involving, and they’ve succeeded to a large extent.
Wilee’s attempt to deliver that envelope implicates him in an international intrigue involving his girl’s roommate, Nima (Jamie Chung), and brings him into contact with a dangerous, increasingly desperate rogue cop, Monday (Michael Shannon). Before long, the movie entwines the lives of these four characters in its driving narrative.
Koepp has claimed that 96 percent of his picture is free of computer-generated effects, but this is misleading. He’s employed a host of optical manipulations, including animated graphics and superimpositions, and varying camera speeds whose results can’t reasonably be confused with recorded actuality. Indeed, Premium Rush almost seems sometimes about to succumb to a cartoonish sensationalism reminiscent of Wilee’s animated Warner Brothers coyote near-namesake. Some of the plotting and writing is good enough to suggest that Koepp could have relied less on tricked-up shots and sequences. But propulsion and action goosing is what he chose most of the time, and he’s managed the results well enough (until a too-pat, populist denouement).
Premium Rush is really a high-end B-movie, and its star’s career has included a few of those (Brick, The Lookout). Gordon-Levitt is assured, in both his acting and athletics, but the acting honors here belong to Shannon, whose brutally bent cop gives the movie a modicum of frightening gravity.
It would be churlish to neglect mentioning the unsung stunt coordinators and performers whom this movie relied on so heavily. It’s claimed at least one a week was injured, as was the star (31 stitches). If ever an Oscar for stunt work was deserved, it’s for their exertions.
An added, incidental but important pleasure is Mitchell Amundsen’s photography, which contributes a vividly persuasive shots of Manhattan’s streets and vistas, more convincingly and vibrantly than any number of New York-set films I’ve seen in recent years.
Watch the trailer for Premium Rush
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