There’s nothing like the pace of a major city. Subways and buses zipping along, cars jockeying for position on the city streets, and pedestrians bustling through at a rapid pace. It’s an elevated heartbeat that pushes a swell of humanity to keep up. Cutting to and fro through it all is a mass of cyclists. Some of them are on their bikes as an alternative to walking or driving, some make a living at it carrying all manner of deliveries to courier. Perhaps more than anything else, these cyclists determine the pace of their cities. If they don’t determine the pace, they certainly push it further.
Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bike courier in New York City. He’s one of the very best at what he does and has a preternatural ability to read any jam he approaches on his bike and quickly figure out the best way to avoid injury and get through it. He’s got it bad for his fellow courier Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). She isn’t as interested in him though, believing that he takes too many risks, and could be doing better things with his life. Over on the sideline is Manny (Wolé Parks), another courier who works with Wilee and Vanessa. He not only believes he’s a better cyclist than Wilee is, but he also has his eye on Vanessa.
Late one afternoon, Wilee is requested specifically to pick up a pickup at Columbia University and drop it off “premium rush”. When he gets to the pickup, he discovers that he has been called by Nima (Jamie Chung) – Vanessa’s roommate and an old acquaintance. She gives him an envelope and reminds him “it’s important”, to which he smiles and retorts that “it always is” before heading out to make his drop.
Before he can pull away however, he is stopped by a man claiming to be campus security (Michael Shannon). He wants the envelope Wilee’s just been given. Wilee, being perceptive to the oddity of the situation, declines and pedals off. Thing is that the man he just encountered was actually NYPD, and he’s about to make it really difficult for Wilee to make it to his drop on time.
Makes you wonder just what it is Wilee’s carrying…
PREMIUM RUSH is at its best when Wilee, Vanessa, and Manny are on their bikes. It’s these scenes that hum with excitement as they sail at top speeds through midtown Manhattan. You can almost feel the audience around you lean forward and whisper “Here we go…” for the scenes where the couriers start pedalling and weaving their way through all of the obstacles in front of them. In these moments, director David Koepp shows that he can give an audience exactly what they came to see. Koepp further demonstrates his understanding of the audience by allowing the bike chases to make up as much of the movie as they do. Helping things immensely is the fact that Gordon-Levitt, Ramirez, and Parks all look so at home on their bikes. It’s this comfort and energy that helps sell the film and make you want to immediately jump on your own bike after the credits roll.
That said, I have to wonder if the film had some sort of animation/graphics quota in its contract since it seemed to use them almost to excess. I did enjoy the fact that anytime Wilee is approaching a tight spot, that his brain can work quickly to assess all his options and figure out a path that won’t get him hurt. However, I’m not sure that we needed to see an animated arrow actually underline the path for us…especially since the arrow is then followed by a projection of what would happen to Wilee if he followed it. Likewise, anytime Wilee consults his PDA to get the route for his drop, I had to laugh that the film took a moment to pull all the way back and show us the route on an animated route of New York. Such flourishes are cute, but also seem to not trust the audience.
Adding heavily to the fun-factor of PREMIUM RUSH is Michael Shannon’s performance. I’ve mentioned before Shannon has quickly become an actor I’ll watch in anything, and his work in PREMIUM RUSH only cements that status all the more. He is a hammy villain of the best variety, one who can yell and seethe with the very best of them. He does go over the top on more than one occasion, but in that wonderful Oldman/Malkovich/Cage way that still shows he has his eye on the ball.
Another question I’m left with after seeing this film is the amount of weight it puts behind Nima’s situation. Beyond the fact that the film completely stops the action in its tracks to spell out for us precisely what is in Wilee’s possession, it stops being sweet and fizzy in these moments, and instead becomes a bitter dose of medicine. The way the film rolls back the clock to tell us how we got to where we are is a neat trick, and the driving device is a good one. However, when the film stops to underline just how important it wants all of this to be to us in the audience, it stops being THE RAID and starts being CRASH.
Melodrama and shiny graphics aside, PREMIUM RUSH is exactly what its title advertises it to be. At its best its one last thrill before we kiss the summer goodbye, and at its worst it’s still palatable. It’s a film that delivers something so few films this summer have: fun. Too many popcorn features are forsaking fun these days in the hopes of delivering grit, message, and allegory. The problem is, when those films don’t deliver on those points and there’s no fun to be had, they become a waste of time. PREMIUM RUSH understands this, and for the most part echoes the best parts of the bike riding it portrays: a fast, energetic, joy.