Movies That Stay With You: 'Premium Rush' is an Inventive, Joyful Shot of Pure Adrenaline
Occasionally, friends ask me for movie recommendations.
‘Hey, Knava, I feel like watching a movie. What do you recommend?’, they’ll say.
‘Heat’, I’ll always answer.
‘Ah, okay. Cool, but I’ve already seen Heat, and I wouldn’t mind something a bit shorter, bouncier, and lighter in tone, you know?’, they might respond.
‘Okay, sure. I mean, you should still just watch Heat again, though.’
Usually that goes on for a little while until the other person either leaves, or gives me a little slap on the face. That tends to short out briefly the infinite Heat loop I can occasionally get stuck in, and I’m then able to actually listen to another human being talk.
It happened just the other week, as a matter of fact. A friend of mine spoke up about wanting a movie recommendation, and — after we’d gone through the aforementioned rigmarole — I eventually discovered that what he he wanted was to watch something that was fun and not-too-demanding, but well-made and well-acted. Filtering the library in my head through these received criteria, it took less than thirty seconds to arrive at the conclusion:
Premium Rush is a forgotten gem from the beginning of this decade. It is a film of curious pedigree. Written and directed by David Koepp, who is responsible for the otherwise justly forgotten Ghost Town, Secret Window, and Mortdecai, among others, as well being the writer or co-writer for Jurassic Park, Toy Soldiers, and Mission: Impossible. That is a strange, quite hacky at times, résumé. Suffice it to say that when I heard it was David Koepp who was primarily responsible for Premium Rush (alongside his co-writer, John Kamps), I wasn’t exactly frothing at the mouth with excitement before my viewing.
And yet. And yet the damn thing just works so well.
The movie is the story of one day in the life of a New York City bike messenger, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). As such, his day is filled with breakneck speed and hair-raising near misses. Riding a fixed-gear bike without brakes, he navigates the streets of New York with verve and skill. When in motion, he exists on a knife edge, and that is exactly where he wants to be. An ordinary day in such a life would almost be exciting enough to watch of its own, but here there is the added spice of a crooked and deranged cop, Bobby (Michael Shannon!), in pursuit. Wilee has a package that Bobby desperately wants. For most of the movie, as is the standard of his trade, Wilee doesn’t know what the package contains. All he knows is that he has to get it across town before time runs out, and that there is an increasingly desperate nemesis in pursuit who doesn’t appear to shy away from using any methods to catch him.
So, yes, this is a ‘bike messenger movie’; and my situation should be made clear upfront: I am a city cyclist, and I love it. I am not a bike messenger — though I know a fair few of them — and it’s London rather than New York that is my terrain. I also do not ride a fixie. Nevertheless, this means that I have an inbuilt affinity to the subject matter that I know not everyone will. Rather than blind me to any of the film’s flaws, however, this makes me more sensitive to them. I know what it’s like to speed down busy, clogged streets, where any carelessly opened car door could mean a messy death. I know what it’s like to have to have 100% of your senses engaged, a virtual sphere of awareness expanding around you, allowing you to react in what feels like quicker than real time. Premium Rush captures the essence of city cycling better than any other movie I’ve ever watched.
I hasten to add at this point, however, that I am by no means saying that you can only enjoy it if you can relate to the subject matter. I wouldn’t have recommended it to my non-cycling friend so quickly otherwise. It is relatively rare that I find myself at odds with a Pajiba review, but way back before I became a writer here, Pajiba did a write-up of this movie. I disagree with almost everything in it.
Anchored by two broad but compelling performances, Premium Rush is a live-action cartoon. The clue is in Gordon-Levitt’s character’s name. Wilee. Thumbing his nose at his pursuer while displaying outrageous skill and speed, his name should be Roadrunner. Though that would perhaps be just a bit too on the nose. Gordon-Levitt brings his usual easygoing charm to the role, mixing just enough smug cyclist in for good measure (hey, I’m not saying we’re not smug). This is entirely in keeping with his character, who genuinely believes that his choice of lifestyle is a better, more enlightened existence than the office-bound, suit-encased one. If that sounds insufferable, it almost is, but Gordon-Levitt and the movie make it work. Shannon is, of course, brilliant. Completely let off the leash, his eyes twitch and his whole body seems to vibrate. Single-minded in his goal, he seethes and rages and is a hilariously terrifying vision to behold.
Over the brisk 92 minutes, the movie does exactly what it sets out to do. It has an admirable lack of bloat — the central chase is what matters. It also, however, finds enough time to flesh out a) Wilee, his philosophy, his job, and his friends and colleagues; and b) Bobby, his background, and his reason for going after Wilee with such abandon. The latter of course is contained within the parcel that Wilee carries. It is, by and large, a McGuffin, although the movie does attempt to — relatively successfully — give some emotional weight to it. The level of extra information added is just enough to give substance and clarity to the central chase, without dragging it down.
There are a number of stylistic flourishes that the film deftly employs. An onscreen clock appears to provide a sense of context and urgency. Zoom-outs happen to allow us to ascertain exactly where in relation to each other — and to their goals — our main players are. Brief flashbacks do some crucial character work. My personal favourite is how time is shown to slow down whenever Wilee approaches a difficult decision at high speed. Mapping out different routes in his vision, he plays each scenario out in his mind before — in a split second — deciding on the one that will hopefully keep him alive. I can’t tell you how true to life that feels.
All of these little touches work wonderfully in serving to keep the viewer’s heart pumping and to keep you invested in Wilee’s mad dash quest.
Special mention should go to the stunts, however. The geography and nature of the city prove such a joyful terrain for Wilee’s bike to continually evade Bobby in his cop car, and — with some CGI providing a bit of help here and there — the stunt team for this movie do a glorious job. As should Joseph Gordon-Levitt, too, with his commitment do doing many of his own stunts, often to the detriment of his flesh:
Premium Rush, then, is the perfect movie for a Friday night or a hungover Saturday. It is an effervescent, well-crafted, tight little gem with pitch perfect performances and top quality stunt work. Crack open a beer or three and put it on. I promise you’ll dig it.
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