“Premium Rush”—David Koepp’s exciting and silly vehicular action film—is about the high stakes life of bicycle messengers. I know, unusual right? In fact it was a job I had little knowledge about before seeing the movie. According to the picture it can be a very dangerous job, especially having to navigate your way through the chaotic, bustling streets of New York City. It’s an extreme sport in and of itself. And it takes one radical dude to do it.
That radical dude is Wilee (a perfectly cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt, displaying his usual cocky charm) and he’s the best there is. He’s so good that he even has a sort of sixth sense; while riding he’s able to visualize the best possible routes and the ones that will result in an accident. Every day he goes to a dispatcher’s office and is given some kind of package or envelope that needs super fast delivery and a certain amount of time to get the delivery to its destination. It’s a difficult task, not just because of the immense physical demands but also the shear risk factor.
Wilee has to dodge his way through the dozens of cars and various other objects that infest the streets. It’s New York City so anything goes and the motorists in the movie never look happy to see Wilee or any other bicycle messengers. But I suppose it’s all part of the job and Wilee lives on the edge. He prefers that lifestyle to wearing a suit and going to work in a boring office. He enjoys the freedom, the thrill, and the extremity. Basically, he’s an adrenaline junkie and every time he whizzes past some sad sap in a suit or in a car, stuck in traffic, that’s his way of taking a hit. His bike doesn’t have any fancy pants gears on it, it doesn’t even have breaks. It’s better to keep on going than stop because as he says, the hesitation is where the accidents happen.
Watching the movie I was reminded a little bit of “Point Break” --the 1991 film where Keanu Reeves played an FBI agent that goes undercover with a gang of surfers, lead by Patrick Swayze, to catch bank robbers—mainly because of the goofy tone of both and their brief insights into the philosophy behind adrenaline junkies: searching for the ultimate ride. For Swayze’s character it was surfing, for Wilee it’s biking.
Everything about “Premium Rush” is ridiculous and campy. Koepp knows it. And we should know it the minute the song “Baba O’Riley” by The Who plays over the opening credits. But really, that’s the way a movie like this should be done. Koepp has to embrace the admitted goofiness, because if the film took itself seriously then it would be a joyless and terrible exercise. As a result, “Premium Rush” is an amusing, pleasurable and elating little actioner that should entertain you for the duration of its brief running time. All of the actors--like Dania Ramirez and Wole Parks as fellow messengers, or Michael Shannon as a maniac cop -- look like they’re having a blast, simply because they’re in on the joke.
Shannon in particular. With his temper tantrums, cackling, violent mood swings, and bumbling mannerisms, he hams it up. He even gets the honor of saying the best, funniest line in the movie (maybe even in the entire year): “I’ll be right back, I forgot my bullets.” Essentially, along with his heavy east coast accent he’s a cartoon villain. It’s a comic strip movie and Koepp wisely retains that tone all throughout the picture. It’s popcorn cinema done well.
The screenplay by Koepp and John Kamps is sleek, as is his direction. Not a surprise, considering it’s an action movie involving bikes. The story, for all of its cartoon nuttiness, actually holds together, without any embarrassing plot holes or lapses in logic. It takes place over the period of one day, practically in real time and so the movie is almost always moving forward and when it isn’t it’s peddling backwards, to give us some background information that in turn connects to some other event that we’ve previously seen.
The cinematography by Michell Amundsen is exhilarating. Sometimes the camera trails behind a character, other times it’s following from the front and occasionally we get a POV shot. One thing I appreciated about the biking scenes (which is virtually the whole movie) is that you can clearly see Gordon Levitt or whoever else is on the bike, going through the actual streets of New York. There’s no obvious use of CGI or green screen. There’s actual bike riding.
The plot? It has something to do with Asian gangsters, Wilee having to transfer a large amount of illegal money, and a child being deported to America but it’s not really worth going over it in great detail. Look, I’m not going to tell you that “Premium Rush” is a masterpiece because it isn’t. As I said, it’s popcorn entertainment. You’ll go to it, perhaps be entertained and move on. You won’t remember it in a year. But during those 90 minutes it’s one hell of a ride.