There is fleet-footed energy to be found in David Koepp’s Premium Rush, but the movie never quite convinced me that any real-life New York City bike messenger could survive this job for more than two or three hours. No, it’s not an exercise in verisimilitude, but, through the proposed first-rate ability of Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Premium Rush at least presents itself as a depiction of someone at the height of his profession. And that’s a difficult angle to get on board with when Wilee is either narrowly avoiding death himself every five minutes, or setting someone else up for a nice broken-collarbone situation.
The film’s set-up is splendidly slim. Wilee gets an envelope from Nima (Jamie Chung), the ex-roommate of Wilee’s ex-girlfriend (Dania Ramirez), and, as with all of his “premium rush” assignments, he readies himself to deliver the envelope to the marked address as soon as possible. But he’s soon stopped by a sweating, stammering Michael Shannon, who explains to Wilee that Nima was actually mistaken in giving him the envelope. However, being the most dependable bike-boy in Manhattan, Wilee knows that this Bobby Monday (Shannon) could easily be a disguised crook, so he quickly escapes with the envelope in tow.
We then get a nicely staged chase sequence, with Wilee swerving around buses and through red lights, and a demented Shannon chasing him in his high-priced motor vehicle. The conflict of this scene — Michael Shannon asking for the envelope, only to be told that he isn’t going to get it — is replicated countless times throughout the movie, and as annoyingly repetitive as that may sound, these scenes actually constitute the most enjoyable moments of Premium Rush. After all, do you know anyone who wouldn’t find entertainment out of watching Michael Shannon do anything within his power — including torturing a wounded person within a hijacked ambulance — to find a cure for his character’s gambling debts?
But Koepp and co-writer John Kamps get too caught up in securing a cause-and-effect ratio from moment to moment, so we’re forced to sit through tedious backstories and compulsive character competition — Wolé Parks is saddled with a shrill loudmouth who despises Wilee for inexplicable reasons — that suck the life out of the film’s more springy action-movie aspects. The rocky romance between Gordon-Levitt and Ramirez is more involving on a character level, since both actors are playfully engaging, but even that subplot is burdened with unnecessary Wilee-rides-his-bike-too-dangerously bickering.
From a more global perspective, there is potential for praise in the film’s clipped runtime of 91 minutes, but even that number is somewhat deceptive, because it’s not as if Koepp and Kamps could’ve made a longer picture but found the discipline to resist. On the contrary, an even shorter duration would’ve done favors for Premium Rush, which resorts to non-linear tricks to justify its needlessly convoluted storyline. The pace of the bike-riding assures us that there’s not an ounce of fat to be found on Gordon-Levitt’s body, but the screenplay itself could certainly lose a few pounds.
Stylistically, Koepp tries to pass off the production as an upper-class one with special-effects stunts that include projected mapping of GPS routes and, more routinely, the possible escape routes going through Gordon-Levitt’s head when he comes up against a dangerous intersection of traffic. The second of those mechanisms works the first time, but the regularity with which the device is used unveils the reality that, in the physical world created by the film, even someone as good as Wilee wouldn’t last a week.
Speaking of which, we’re consistently reminded during the film of the fact that Wilee’s speed-seeking menace is enhanced by his decision to ride a bicycle that has no brakes. (His most harmful accidents have all occurred while riding a bike with brakes, he informs us.) I wish Koepp would’ve taken this advice more to heart, instead of implanting narrative when one isn’t really called for or even desired. All we truly want from Premium Rush is for Michael Shannon to talk about how disgustingly dirty the world of television has become, but that speech, in all of its euphoric magic, unfortunately lasts for mere seconds.
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