[24 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There is probably a more complicated story surrounding bike messengers making their way through the tricky twists and turns of the big city. For some, it’s the Kevin Bacon sleeper Quicksilver. There, the man whose no more than six steps away from anyone else in the entertainment universe played an ex-stockbroker whose disastrous decision leads him to regain his dignity via bicycling through San Francisco. Premium Rush, on the other hand, is a throwback action thriller with a winning lead, a loony villain, and a central plot point that’s more of a shoulder shrug than a real life or death dilemma. Still, in the capable hands of David Koepp (who directed Bacon in Stir of Echoes, by the way) we see how a simple premise can be parlayed into entertaining, escapist late Summer fun.
Even though he graduated from the Columbia School of Law, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) just can’t see himself in a suit and tie. So he throws off the shackles of self sufficiency for the rad, in your face extremes of bike messenger-ing. Working for Raj (Aasif Mandvi), he is known as the most reliable, yet most death defying deliverer on the NYC streets. His on-again, off-again co-worker/girlfriend (Dania Ramirez) doesn’t get his desire to play professional daredevil while rival Manny (Wole Parks) just wants to switch places in the hottie romance department. One day, friend Nima (Jamie Chung) requests Wilee’s services. All he has to do is take an envelope from one side of town to the other. Unbeknownst to him, however, the contents are very valuable, even drawing the attention of a corrupt cop (Michael Shannon) who will stop at nothing to learn - and earn - its secrets.
Premium Rush has suffered a few slings and arrows on its way to the penultimate weekend of August 2012. Last year, author Joe Quirk sued the production and its parent companies, claiming they had all co-opted his novel… Ultimate Rush. More specifically, he claimed that his own screenplay treatment had been stolen and used as the basis for this supposedly original work. Publicity ensued, with everyone from the New York Times to the blogsphere having their say. This past July, a judge refused to dismiss the case, meaning that Quirk can proceed to prove his claims. If he succeeds, it won’t be the first time a non-credited “contributor” earns post-product recognition (think Harlan Ellison and The Terminator). In this case however, Premium Rush is so slight and insignificant that it really doesn’t warrant such a fuss.
Koepp comes up with a clever way of illustrating his messenger’s daily dilemmas. One sequence shows Gordon-Levitt, eyes in intense focus, finding imaginative ways around (and into) pedestrian/traffic danger. Another CG gimmick gives us a grid view of Manhattan, a GPS like guidance arrow illustrating the distance to be traveled and how long it will take to get there. Every device is used to propel the movie forward, the filmmakers finding creative avenues to explain characters while still serving the needs of the genre. This means conversations are held while people are frantically peddling, backstory is delivered in clock rewind precision to fill in the narrative blanks. By the time of the final chase, Shannon’s scenery chewing insanity in hot pursuit of Gordon-Levitt’s hipster hero, we’ve bought into it all…well, almost all of it.
Indeed, there is a flaw at the center of Premium Rush, one Mr. Quick may want to distance himself from before seeking additional damages. Nima’s need, balanced between the Chinese mafia and her own Mainland past, is perfectly servicable. It’s also capable of some true emotion. Unfortunately, it is handled in a clunky, cloying manner. Certain events make no sense. Others are too obvious. Why does the ‘snakehead’ needs the secret item if she can verify, from the big boss, that equal value has been exchanged? If this was such an important transaction, why wait until the last minute to accomplish it - and why Wilee. Sure, he has the reputation (and the prize bike for being the city/s best bike messenger), but he’s also a bit of a slacker. He takes unnecessary breaks and risks everything to prove points antithetical to his position.
Still, Premium Rush keeps our attention, partly because Koepp comes to the party to play. His chases bristle with a kind of kinetic energy missing from many action flicks, and his cast come prepared to put their mettle to the pedals. Gordon-Levitt is a decent lead. We get invested in his sense of duty and want to see him succeed. Ramirez makes a good second, even if she lacks legitimate chemistry with her man. Parks is a real red herring, a wannabe hot shot who just can’t seem to beat his main competitor. And then there is Shannon, putting on the Bronx brogue and doing his damnedest to detour the film’s overall tone toward his own oddball effect. He definitely can do bad. How he does it remains one of Rush‘s most complicated, incomplete pleasures.
In fact, it’s safe to say that Premium Rush represents the age old adage that a simple story told with some style can succeed, if only marginally. This is not some sensational summer sleeper or a revision of the entire genre. Instead, it’s wonky but workmanlike, delivering on its promises while failing to fall outside the basic boundaries. Had Koepp tried to be a bit different, had he not reserved all his invention for the movie’s MapQuest imagery, we might have a real winner on our hands. Otherwise, this is a patented audience pleaser that is destined to dissolve and fade from your memory mere moments after leaving the theater. There probably is a more complicated story surrounding New York City’s bicycle messenger corps. Premium Rush is not it - for good and for bad.