A couple weeks ago, critic Mike Ryan wrote about August movies and how they represent the kind of filler material that lands between the Hollywood blockbusters of summer and the award-bait prestige releases of the fall. (He posited that, among all Augusts, 1996 was the worst.) We’re in a dead zone on the calendar when movies are advertised not as cultural events or emotional powerhouses but merely as ways to get out of the heat for a while. Premium Rush is just such a movie. It is relentlessly bland, powerfully forgettable, utterly and joyfully dull. It’s not hateful or malicious, because even negative emotions like that would require a kind of narrative commitment or spiritual drive that the film totally lacks. It’s the kind of film destined to become an answer to a trivia question no one will remember to ask.
I don’t mean that to sound cruel, though I’m aware it might. My tone is one of mourning, not anger. Every time I sit down to watch a movie, whether in a theater or at home, I think: “I love movies.” Every time. It usually happens as the lights go down, the music kicks in, and a new world is created before me out of light. I’m in love with the power of them, from the fun ones to the serious ones, and I love watching them. When I see something as dull and unmemorable as Premium Rush, I’m not upset; I’m sad. I can feel the weight of expectation pushing me down as the hope that I’d see something entertaining — even if triflingly so — is replaced by the recognition that I’m instead sitting through another plastic, dead-eyed movie that goes about its business with plodding resignation. There’s so much potential for a fun, funny thriller in Premium Rush, which deals with a bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tasked with transporting sensitive material through Manhattan while he’s chased by a crooked cop. It’s a gimmick with plenty of room for comedy and action, but the film squanders almost every opportunity to become something better than a lazy assemblage of scenes and stereotypes.
New York City bike messenger named Wilee (Levitt) — pronounced “Wily” — receives an envelope from Nima (Jamie Chung), who’s the soon-to-be-ex-roommate of another messenger, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), with whom Wilee is in something like love. He and Nima also appear to be friends from his brief time at law school, before he washed out and didn’t sit for the bar, but this isn’t really hammered home. Nima gives him the envelope, containing a high-value chit, and tells him he has 90 minutes to get it to a woman in Chinatown. Levitt brings a believable kind of charm to the role, so much so that you find yourself almost rooting for a guy who brags in voice-over (used, of course, like a crutch at the film’s beginning and end) about riding a fixed-gear, brakeless bike in and out of traffic and between pedestrians for the sheer fun of it. He’s kind of an arrogant little kid, pulling tricks and outsmarting those dang ol’ grown-ups like the second coming of Cru Jones. His goal is only to deliver the envelope, but a number of shaggy plot developments mean he has to keep doubling back to keep the package and get to his goal.
I use “doubling back” intentionally here, too. The film occasionally announces its place in the day’s timeline with a giant on-screen clock meant to convey urgency, but also to allow director and co-writer David Koepp (who shares screenplay credit with John Kamps) to jump back and forth in time to show what was happening half an hour before whatever we just saw. This, as you might be worrying, is actually a great way to totally annihilate tension or suspension of disbelief: We know, e.g., that Wilee is going to be OK and trucking down Broadway in 45 minutes, so whatever scrape he gets into now won’t matter. The gimmick is meant to heighten the anxiety by keeping the viewer somewhat off-balance, but it actually has the opposite effect and flattens the standard dramatic ups and downs into a simple line.
Along the way, Wilee occasionally comes across a dangerous intersection clogged with, you know, cars and people obeying the basic laws of traffic and society, so he has to make a decision about which route to take through the crowd. In these moments, Koepp freezes time and zooms in on Wilee’s face as the messenger uses a kind of Spidey sense to project possible paths, illustrated with an animated line and an image of Wilee either crashing into a car or person or successfully navigating the fray. Some of these moments are meant to be a little goofy, though by the third or fourth time we see Imaginary Wilee hit a stroller or some nameless pedestrian get crushed by a hypothetical truck, they become unintentionally hilarious in ways Koepp probably did not intend. A lot of the film is like that, actually: you find yourself reacting to things that aren’t happening, laughing not at what’s being shown but the fact that it’s being shown at all.
The bright spot in all this is Michael Shannon, who plays a mentally unstable NYPD detective named Bobby Monday but who introduces himself to civilians with the cover name Forrest J. Ackerman. Monday’s in deep with local bookies and is told that he can clear his debt if he intercepts the package Wilee is taking to Chinatown, so he spends the film hounding him and growing increasingly irate. He giggles and chirps, and he even kills a couple guys. He’s insane, and Shannon brings a typically convincing level of commitment to the role, hammy as it is. Levitt’s easy-going, pleasant, harmless. He’s a bit of a prick, but good enough to make it work. Chung is saddled with an unfortunate accent — when a friend asks at one point why she’s upset, Chung replies, “Nussing. Iss my problem.” — that doesn’t help much, either. Then again, the movie asks her and everyone else to have precisely one dimension, so she obliges.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is how boring the film can be. Not just the interminable flashbacks and divergent plots, but the actual biking that’s supposed to tie the whole thing together. Traffic near-collisions notwithstanding, it’s remarkably trying to watch people ride bicycles across town while yelling at each other via Bluetooth headsets. It didn’t have to be, either. If the filmmakers had poured even a fraction of their energies into interesting characters or a more compelling story, it would’ve been possible to make scenes of even the slowest cycling come alive with plot and consequence. But the action never feels like an extension of the story, just a kind of goofy obstacle thrown in to keep things going. It never clicks, though. They can pedal until they pass out, but they might as well be on stationary bikes, going nowhere and screaming all the while.