It’s a coincidence that Top Gun director Tony Scott died in the same week that this film hits theaters, because writer/director David Koepp’s Premium Rush is the Top Gun of New York City bike messenger movies. The story is ludicrous, but much in the same way that Scott’s kinetic style inspired countless men to sign up to be Navy fighter pilots after watching his movie, Koepp and his team know how to make riding a bike look freaking cool. A departure from the serious cinematic realm in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt generally likes to operate, Premium Rush is a goofy, fun film with memorable and ridiculous action scenes.
Saddled with a barely-there narrative that simply serves as a launchpad from one chase scene to the next, the story involves Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), NYC’s fastest bike messenger who rides a “fixie” bike with no brakes, as he travels across town to deliver a mysterious package from Nima (Jamie Chung). Through a series of flashbacks, we discover that not only is this package very important to Nima and her family, but it also could be the way out of some gambling struggles for corrupt cop Robert Monday (Michael Shannon), who is hellbent on intercepting it. In between chases, there are subplots involving another dude trying to steal Wilee’s girlfriend (Dania Ramirez) while the couple are fighting, and a well-meaning bike cop whose day is comically made progressively worse when he tries to stop Wilee for traffic violations.
Aping a concept from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, Wilee has the ability to freeze time while making decisions, running through different scenarios that would happen if he snakes through traffic one way (crash into a baby stroller – nope) or another (bump into a guy who gets run over by a truck – not that way, either) until he finds the perfect path and barely squeezes through the ever-present NYC traffic. But this is a fictionalized version of New York, one in which Michael Shannon’s villain can weave a car in and out of traffic in a 40 mile per hour chase sequence with JGL’s bike and doesn’t immediately get stopped in his tracks. Granted, it’s much more fun this way, and in a film that boils down to one long chase movie, it would be impossible to make if accuracy was a priority.
Koepp, who is famous for writing Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, tries to present a tight-knit subculture of bike messengers in the city, but with so little time for character moments in between long stretches of action, his attempt doesn’t quite work. He’s much better in the action beats, which alternate between POV shots from the bike and Transformers DP Mitchell Amundsen’s claustrophobic cinematography of the riders weaving through heavy traffic, nearly getting obliterated at every turn. (There are more screeching tires and horn honks in this movie than any other you’ll see this year.) He uses sleek graphic pop up displays to tell us where we are and where Wilee must go (like Crank, but with 3D renderings of the buildings instead of Google maps), and ultimately this film is a classic case of style over substance.
Gordon-Levitt is mostly known for his rich, complex characters, but in the press notes for this movie, he’s quoted as saying, “I just loved the idea of riding a bike in New York City all summer. I’ve done a lot of different movies and it’s always really fulfilling, but this job in particular was fun.” More power to him. If he wants to balance critically acclaimed performances in films like Brick and The Dark Knight Rises with goofy projects like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Premium Rush, good for him. Doing the same thing all the time is boring. Just know that if you’re expecting more his more serious work, you’ll likely walk out of this disappointed in his performance.
Michael Shannon, however, does not disappoint. He too is known for dramatic fare like Revolutionary Road (in which he lost an Oscar to Heath Ledger’s Joker) and psychologically intense films like Take Shelter, but his work here approaches Nic Cage levels by utilizing bizarre tics and a wildly over-the-top delivery. He mocks Wilee’s name in the film (“Wilee? Like the coyote?”), but it’s he who basically plays a cartoon character. He employs a maniacal laugh, shouts questions and insults to JGL from a moving vehicle, and launches into monologues about the inappropriateness of the phrase “suck it” appearing in prime time television. Believe it or not, it’s even stranger than it sounds. And while this is certainly Shannon at his most bizarre, it’s hard not to have fun while watching.
Ramirez (who appeared in American Reunion earlier this year) was fine as the token girlfriend character, but Jamie Chung’s character was an uncomfortable characterization of an Asian woman – complete with a stereotypical accent – that totally brought me out of the movie. But the supporting players are barely addressed before we’re whisked back through the streets, dodging taxis and jumping stairs as the action kicks into gear again.
The ending, which I won’t spoil, is a confluence of things you’ve seen a hundred times in films before, but a satisfying narrative is not this film’s raison d’être: it’s watching good-looking people travel across the Big Apple at full tilt, which Koepp manages to pull off convincingly in wide shots that prove those actors are actually putting themselves in danger. With a propulsive score driving it forward and some compelling action, Premium Rush is a good time at the movies, even if it tends to coast a bit on the storytelling. Until next time…