People working on bikes have not often fared well in the movies. Long ago there were Bicycle Thieves, but within recent memory only Quicksilver comes to mind, and barely at that; Kevin Bacon himself has described it as “the absolute lowest point of [his] career”. It’s not so much that it was bad, but that it was pretty forgettable. The bike scenes were okay but the story was tedious and the assembly was hacked together from what had sold well recently. I mean, in the absence of Flashdance who would look at a film about a bike messenger and think, “you know what this needs? dance practice”.
So along comes Premium Rush, which partly feels calculated to capitalize on the whole fixed-gear bike fad. Writer/director David Koepp isn’t exactly a young, hungry kid writing his own life here, after all. And yeah, the fixie bit is probably tied with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as what’s going to draw audiences in, but this is no simply gimmick movie. The action is tight and lean, and the story — while far from the most original — is fast-paced and engaging. Cap it off with two strong leads and you’ve got a solid hour and a half of entertainment.
Now, the script does lift the idea from Quicksilver that Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) is a bike messenger despite having “greater” potential, but the similarity stops there; he dropped out of law school because he loves the rush of biking through the urban jungle and can’t imagine getting stuck behind a desk in a gray flannel suit. His girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and his rival, Manny (Wolé Parks), both work for the same service, which is run by a guy named Raj (Aasif Mandvi) who channels Louie De Palma from Taxi.
Wilee takes an emergency pick-up at five thirty at Columbia University phoned in by Vanessa’s roommate, Nima (Jamie Chung), and has until seven to get it to Doyers Street in Chinatown. But he’s being tailed by NYPD detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) with impulse control issues and a bad pai gow problem who wants the envelope for himself. And then there’s a bike cop (Christopher Place) who somehow manages to show up right in Wilee’s path from one end of Manhattan to the other.
For those who don’t know that Columbia is in the north of the island on the west side and Chinatown is in the south on the east side, Koepp offers some help in the form of a nifty little device inspired by a smartphone mapping app. It’s not the only visual experiment he tries; there’s some nifty tilt-shift photography and a representation of Wilee’s decision-making process that seems like it would get hokey but isn’t that bad in practice.
Thankfully, Koepp doesn’t spend all his time playing games; the bulk of the action is composed tightly-wound chases through crowded city streets. Even better, he cuts between close and wide shots, keeping us relatively aware of the space around the bikes. And while he spends more time than I would have on shots of the bikers’ faces, there’s plenty of high-speed first-person action too.
All this action is anchored by two solid performances from Gordon-Levitt and Shannon. Gordon-Levitt went all out in shooting the action, even crashing into the back of a cab himself and tearing open his forearm, as illustrated in a clip during the closing credits. And Shannon approaches the role of an action-film antagonist every bit as seriously as if this were a gritty drama featuring Monday as a bad-cop antihero. He could have ended up a generic enemy figure, but I was at least as interested in his story as in, say, Wilee’s history with Vanessa.
It may not be the most groundbreaking film even this year, but what Premium Rush promises, it delivers: thrills from point A to point B in ninety minutes or less.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.