On the surface, an action movie about the rough-and-tumble life of bike messengers in New York City might seem a bit silly, and… well, it sort of is. It’s not that there aren’t dangers involved in what they do – I know who I’m betting on when a Schwinn goes head-to-head with a Chrysler – but as the premise for an action movie, it can’t help but be looked at with some degree of skepticism.
The makers of Premium Rush know this, too, and they compensate by making the premise more cartoonish than any superhero movie you’re likely to see this summer. At the center of this mayhem is the reliably excellent Michael Shannon (“Boardwalk Empire”), who sets aside all nuance in favor of a thick New Yawk accent and slavering menace as he plays a corrupt NYC police officer named Monday, cackling and mugging throughout his performance (“I’m a cop!” he repeatedly reminds the audience, as if we forgot what this most typical of movie goons was supposed to be). Shannon’s scenery-chewing is indicative of the movie as a whole: a bunch of quality actors hamming it up in a piece of late-summer trash that might be just stupid enough to be enjoyable.
At the center of Monday’s frustration is bike messenger Wilee (Jospeh Gordon-Levitt, The Dark Knight Rises). A law school dropout who prefers the adrenaline rush of dodging cars and performing bicycle stunts, Wilee is on the outs with his girlfriend, another messenger named Vanessa (Dania Ramirez, American Reunion), who is now being wooed by Wilee’s chief Rival, Manny (Wolé Parks). Wilee earns Monday’s wrath when he picks up a mysterious envelope bound for Chinatown that means a great deal to any number of people who want what’s inside, including Monday. When Wilee refuses to relinquish the envelope, the city-wide chase begins as Wilee tries to figure out what’s so special about this package that would lead a police officer to attempt to kill him.
All of this is just a structure to show off the film’s bike stunts, as Wilee and his (sometimes unknowing) bike messenger accomplices work to get the envelope to its intended destination. The contents of the envelope (no, it’s not drugs, as the characters frequently speculate) is played as a mystery, but does that matter much as Wilee heads into a crowded Manhattan intersection, mentally extrapolating the one route through the traffic that won’t result in his comically horrific death? There’s always a curb to jump or an impossible turn to make to elude his pursuers. In this mode, the movie knows it’s having fun, and the cross-city chase is engineered to maximize the stunts: a race through the park, a convenient beam placed across a high fall. Even with the serious stakes represented by the envelope, Premium Rush is perpetually smirking at its own slick silliness, practically looking at the audience as if to say, “Didn’t that look cool?”
There’s not particularly anything wrong with that. Directed and co-written by veteran screenwriter and Pewaukee native David Koepp, Premium Rush is stocked with enough one-liners and visual tricks to ensure the audience never really questions the fact they’re watching a bike messenger action movie (or that a plot point involves organizing a flash mob, the smash fad of 2007). Wilee often brags that his bike is “fixed gear, no brakes,” a philosophy adopted by the movie itself, always pushing forward and often leaving sense in the rearview. Koepp steers the film on that slim line between fun and stupid, often veering one way or the other throughout the movie before settling more on the fun side. There’s an of-the-moment disposability to Premium Rush, a bubbly jolt of adrenaline that marks it as a movie of its time. In the end, the viewer is most likely to say, “Why, yes, that did look cool” before forgetting about Wilee and his gang completely.
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Film: Premium Rush
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, and Jamie Chung
Directed By: David Koepp
Screenplay By: David Koepp & John KampsProduced By: Gavin Polone
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Running Time: Approximately 91 minutes
Release Date: August 24, 2012