A film review by Craig J. Koban August 28, 2012


2012, PG-13, 91 mins.


Wilee: Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Bobby: Michael Shannon / Vanessa: Daniela Ramirez / Phoebe: Lauren Ashley Carter / Nima: Jamie Chung / Manny: Wole Parks

Directed by David Koepp. Written by Koeppand John Kamps

Brazenly mocking the typical status quo of dubious quality late summer efforts, David Koepp’s action thriller PREMIUM RUSH finishes our current movie season not with a lamentable whimper, but with kinetically charged bang.  The modestly budgeted $35 million actioner was shot early in 2010 and was supposed to be released in mid-2011; usually when a film has gestated that long on studio shelves it’s not a very good sign.  The great news here, though, is that PREMIUM RUSH has a unique premise, some truly engaging performances, feverous pacing, and, for my money, some of the most breathlessly innovative and exhilarating vehicular chase sequences I’ve seen in a film in an awfully long time. 

We have all seen countless chase scenes in action thrillers before, which – as of late – have been minutely broken down to millisecond cuts, frenetic and hard-to-decipher queasy-cam hysterics, and an all out disregard to clarity and cohesion.  Koepp – who has spent a career writing many Spielbergian blockbusters like JURASSIC PARK I and II, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and the last INDIANA JONES film and recently directed the great Ricky Gervais comedy GHOST TOWN - takes a premise deceptively simple (the world of high-priority New York bike messengers) and audaciously concocts bravura, thrill-a-minute chase sequences that utilize old school stunts, coherent staging and choreography, precisely timed editing, and what most likely must have been some CGI augmentation.   I came out of the film having complete admiration for the intrepidness of not only its stars – who all seem to be seamlessly blended in here, performing most of their own bike driving – but its valiant stunt crew that made impossible shots possible.  So many modern films overkill us with computer trickery; if there is a lot in PREMIUM RUSH then it’s really quite invisible. 

Koepp gives us a fragmented storyline that segues back and forth from the past and present to keep viewers on the tips of their toes and allows for the already short 91-minute film to flow by with an unsullied nimbleness.  It thrusts viewers headfirst into a world that, frankly, I never knew existed on the scale that the film presents it.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt – riding high off the success of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES – plays the proverbial best of New York’s bike messengers named Wilee (which intentionally is pronounced “Wylie”, just like Wile. E. Coyote, I guess).  He’s cocky and impulsive, but he is undeniably a master of his vocation.  He’s a former law school graduate who felt that a life in a suit and working in an office was just too dang suffocating, so he opted for the daily adrenaline rush of racing through Manhattan's streets with reckless abandon and disregard to the rules of the road.  Hell, Wilee even removed the brakes from his bike, which he feels slows him down and is the symbol of “death” for those in his line of work. 



Wilee is not the only one careening in and out of traffic to deliver highly valuable packages for $30-plus a piece.  There’s Vanessa (the luminous Diana Ramirez) that’s his close BFF and, if he has anything to say about it, potential girlfriend, and the uber swaggering Manny (Wole Parks), who seems to relish in poaching Wilee’s prized assignments.  One day sees Wilee on what appears to be a fairly routine assignment of taking a Chinese-immigrant’s “package” to Chinatown before 7pm, which Wilee sees as a quick and easy way to make a buck.  He soon realizes – within minutes of taking the small package and beginning his city-spanning trek – that this is not ordinary and safe courier request.  The item in question seems to be wanted by many, no more so than by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a beyond-crocked cop that seems fanatical in securing the package for his own twisted needs.  The chase, so to speak, is on!

Unapologetically, PREMIUM RUSH’s main attraction is its almost guerrilla approach to visualizing Wilee’s bravely – if not insanely – journeys of zipping, dodging and weaving through massive onslaughts of traffic, pedestrians, and just about any other object to evade the crazed Monday and every turn.  Koepp plants the camera in interesting places: sometimes in the front of the bike – giving us a jolting and immersive first person perspective – or very low and just behind the bike, which kind of echoes the finest and most electrifyingly urgent chase sequences of the MAD MAX pictures.  Regardless of method, Koepp more than sells the endless breakneck intensity of Wilee pedaling through the Big Apple – minus gears, breaks, and a fear of injury or death - to reach his destination.   

There is no doubt that Koepp marries stunt work, brilliant cinematography, and visual effects here, but they are all so faultlessly joined together that one does not distract from the other.  He also manages to create intriguing visuals that show Wilee’s lightning-fast thought processes as he attempts to decide on a proper route to take when faced with an unexpected obstacle (we see what’s going on in his mind as he methodically goes through every possible future scenario, with all but one that will lead to him making it through unscathed) that sort of reminds me of a similar technique in Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES.  When Wilee does make the right choice and succeeds at bobbing in and out of the labyrinthine mess of human and car traffic, he cracks a daredevil grin and giddily laughs like an addict that just got his fix.   

Koepp also manages to harness some fine performances amidst all of this chaos.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is reliably solid and convincing as ever as his brash and maverick biking thrill-seeker.  The film’s real casting coup de grace is the great Michael Shannon, who always manages to bring an unpredictable level of menace and danger to all of his roles.  He plays his NYPD backstabbing officer with amoral motives as a wholeheartedly unsympathetic sicko that seems addicted to being bad while, at the same time, relaying him as a hapless nutjob that makes some really bad life choices.  Some of the film’s best laughs come at the expense of seeing Shannon go hopelessly nutty from one desperate scene to the next when things don’t go his way.  Whenever Shannon’s on screen, your eyes are just glued to him; he’s just one of the most freakishly intoxicating film actors around.

If PREMIUM RUSH were to have a fault it would be that its subplots involving the love triangle between Wilee, Vanessa, and Many, dirty cops, the Chinese mob, immigration woes and the plight of the woman that starts Wilee on his hellish assignment feel made of up used components from other films.  Yet, it’s the film’s novel handling of its stock elements by placing them within the microcosm of the high-speed world of big city bike messengers that makes it resonate with a refreshing I’ve-never-seen-that-before vitality.  Remove the endless and dazzlingly realized bicycle chases and PREMIUM RUSH would just be another paint-by-numbers underworld thriller.  Yet, the film takes its unusual premise of hard-core bike enthusiast-as-action-hero and boldly goes with it and doesn’t look back.  PREMIUM RUSH – despite all of its release woes – is unexpectedly a finely crafted and superior entertainment.

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