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Premium Rush (2012)

premium rushDIRECTOR: David Koepp

CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Jamie Chung, Wolé Parks, Henry O

REVIEW:

Premium Rush isn’t anything deep or substantial, but as its title suggests, its an hour and a half of breezy, fast-paced diverting entertainment that slows down as rarely as its characters.  Writer-director David Koepp has mined a previously little-used premise–bicycle messengers–for chase scenes that feel less generic than standard-issue dime a dozen car chases.

On the streets of New York City, bicycle messengers fly through the streets with daredevil abandon, zipping in and out of traffic delivering messages or packages when FedEx isn’t fast enough.  They take their lives in their hands every day, but many of them live for the rush.  One of these is Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose bicycle has neither gears nor brakes and likes it that way.  Wilee is among the best of the best, sharing the streets with his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) and his nemesis Manny (Wolé Parks), but he’s about to have bigger problems.  One day, Wilee picks up a package from Vanessa’s roommate Nima (Jaime Chung), unsuspecting that Nima is trying to illegally smuggle her young son from China into the US.  Wilee is now in possession of a ticket worth a lot of money that needs to be delivered to an underworld figure in Chinatown by 7:00 pm, and crooked cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon in full scenery-chewing mode) needs it to pay off gambling debts he’s racked up with Chinatown crime bosses.  The chase is on, and the clock is ticking, and Detective Monday is far from the only hazard Wilee will face on his race through the dangerous streets of New York City.

Writer-director David Koepp, better known for his screenplays (Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, among others) than his directing efforts (though he’s also directed a few films, including the supernatural thriller Stir of Echoes), manages to keep the energy level high and the chases involving, a feat in and of itself given how commonplace car chases are; an action flick isn’t complete without one.  Partly this is because bicycle chases aren’t something we see as often, but Koepp also uses visual flair to keep things fresh and interesting, including moments where we freeze-frame and Wilee visualizes alternate routes, and their outcomes (this bit is a little reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes premeditating his fight moves in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films).  The script is quick, tight, and economical.  There are a couple moments where Koepp takes a short break for a little background or exposition, but never long enough for the zip-zap pace to get bogged down.  Koepp uses lots of different perspectives–first-person, overhead shots, GPS simulations–to mix things up, and Wilee gets taken on various detours en route to the drop-off, including a day-long feud with a bike cop (Christopher Place), and a race through Central Park with his rival Manny.  While expert stunt drivers were used for some of the more extreme moves, the actors performed much of their own stunts themselves (Joseph Gordon-Levitt required 30 stitches after crashing during filming).  The exact way the ticket works is a little hard to follow, but it’s basically just a MacGuffin to drive the plot, so it doesn’t matter too much.  The ending is slightly anti-climactic, but the way there is a fun ride.

This is not an actor’s movie, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not only in good enough shape to keep up with the near-constant manic bicycling the role requires, he’s also naturally likable enough to make Wilee easy to root for, even if the movie’s not long on character development.  Meanwhile, Michael Shannon screams, flails, and snarls his way through the movie with scenery-chewing abandon.  It’s an enjoyably over-the-top performance that also supplies some moments of black comedy.  No one else makes much of an impression (though Dania Ramirez and Wolé Parks do their share of fast pedaling).

Premium Rush has a couple stumbles, though not serious enough to cause a spill.  The bits with the thinly-developed Wilee/Vanessa/Manny love triangle and Nima’s son included to give the movie some “heart” feel exactly as perfunctory and obligatory as they are, and basically only serve to provide the movie’s few slow moments.  Also, about halfway through, Koepp interrupts the main action to flashback in time for some background exposition on Bobby Monday’s motives.  Not only is this time jump a little confusing, it’s also longer than it had to be to get the minimal needed character development across.  But while Premium Rush might get a little wobbly a couple times, it never falls.  There’s nothing deep here, but this is a more energetic and exciting ride than can be found from many action flicks, and if you’re looking for an hour and a half of simple fast-paced entertainment, Premium Rush is satisfying.

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