Movie Review: Premium Rush

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Premium Rush"

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again stars in a non-linear film that grabs hold of us with its crazy-clock hands and hurtles us forward and backward through time. But rather than employed for comedic effect — as in Gordon-Levitt’s earlier (500) Days of Summer — here the non-sequential device enhances the hyperkinetic speed of Premium Rush. While (500) Days of Summer chose certain, non-sequential days from one-and-a-third years to knit together a portrait of a relationship in full, Premium Rush counts on disconnected minutes over a four-hour timeframe to steer us around and through this action thriller. (Or, given the frequent body-to-pavement crashes, perhaps this movie should be called an “action spiller.”)

Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a onetime Columbia University law school student who saw the drab corporate light, and traded in a future briefcase and a pricey auto for a messenger bag and a brakeless, fixed-gear bicycle (a “fixie”). For Wilee, the life of a Manhattan bike messenger signifies freedom, complete control over bike as well as body, and the thrill of careening at top speed through the last urban frontier, where rules are met with a shrug and an extended finger. But he’s not a reprobate – he adheres to the code of the messenger who, not unlike the mailman, is expected to deliver for the customer no matter what. (Calling to mind the inscription on NYC’s main post office building: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”)

Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) in "Premium Rush"

But not every bike messenger espouses the same cavalier “brakes equal death” opinion as Wilee. The steroidal Manny (Wolé Parks) brags about his increased speed by relying on multiple gears, and girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) insists on riding with brakes. All three work for a bike messenger company run by the harried yet humorous Raj (Aasif Mandvi); not surprisingly, jealousies, competition and romantic entanglements ensue. But the main thrust of the film entails sociopathic cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who is intent on stopping Wilee from delivering a particular package at all costs.

Having written and/or directed an impressive array of blockbuster action films previously (e.g., Spider-Man, Mission Impossible, Jurassic Park), director/co-writer David Koepp masterfully creates a driving, dynamic rhythm that hurtles through the film. The few scenes that allow us to take a breath, catching a snippet of back story here, learning a factual fill-in there, provide welcome pauses in the action. However, the screenplay (co-written by John Kamps) takes a few bumps that figuratively crash us onto the asphalt. Such as: The cops in question all work at the same police station that Wilee just so happens to visit? Making it appear that New York City has only one station house? Or the fact that in a city of 1,500 messengers, Wilee is described as the guy in the red shirt and the beat-up white bike … and is easily spotted with such a general description?

But these are quibbles. On the technical side, Gordon-Levitt and his four doubles pull off amazing stunts throughout the film. Per Koepp: “We never shot green screen. It’s always better to see them in the environment, see the bike moving, see that they were really doing it.” The movie uses clever map graphics, allowing us to get a preview of the bike routes that will be negotiated. Even better, the filmmakers have devised a cinematic illustrative concept they call “Bike Vision.” Here, Wilee’s brain lays out a visual analytic of possible paths he might take in order to avoid crashing. It’s a brilliant idea, allowing us to appreciate both the suspense as well as the process involved in split-second decisions … decisions that most of us have been forced to make at one time or another. The difference is that Wilee does this in his line of work constantly.

No matter the tricks, it still comes down to story and characters. That said, while the lines are easily drawn between good guy and bad, Michael Shannon’s “bad” couldn’t be better. Pitching his voice into a higher, flatter drone, his eyes bug out in manic rage while his mouth (recently deprived of a tooth) twists into wry grimaces. And from that selfsame cavity pours an insane mix of racism, fury and humor, as if even Shannon’s corrupt cop Monday can’t believe the level of his own ignominy. Somewhere deep inside, we sense that Monday is howling as much in rage as in self-mocking laughter.

Dania Ramirez is fine as the girlfriend with more traditional ambitions and, as her frightened, secretive roommate, Jamie Chung delivers a sensitive performance. The ensemble is collectively strong, ably led by the rising star power of Gordon-Levitt who continues to prove he is as much at home in comedies, dramas or perilous actioners.

As circular as a bike wheel itself, Premium Rush reflects a clever, ever-spinning cycle of action that may sometimes race forward and then, just as quickly, take an over-the-shoulder look back in time. It’s one wild ride we won’t easily forget.

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Rating on a scale of 5 instances of backpedaling: 4

Release date: August 24, 2012
Directed by: David Koepp
Screenplay by: David Koepp & John Kamps
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Jamie Chung
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 91 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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