Review: Koepp's 'Premium Rush' Should Have Hit Theaters in 1997
by Jeremy Kirk
August 24, 2012
Joseph Gordon-Levitt's bicycle messenger character in Premium Rush, the latest from writer/director David Koepp, is a shark, always on the move, never slowing down. If he stops, he dies. And that's all the subtext we get on the character in this fast but clunky chase movie that spends more time on elaborate stunts than character or story structure. It's the kind of thinly crafted, mainstream actioner that would have fit in somewhere in the late 90s, and even now, it's more fun than it deserves to be. Add the insanity of one Michael Shannon as the villain, and Premium Rush is a film that coasts to slight recommendation.
Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a New York City messenger who lives on the edge, the kind of guy who's so extreme he's removed the brake from his bike. Knowing the perils that await people of his ilk in downtown NYC - The character notes that some of them "die out here" in the film's plodding opening narration - Wilee braves the street making sure packages and envelopes are delivered on time, street laws be damned. Hey, he's on a bike. He doesn't have to stop at red lights, right? Wilee's day takes a turn South when he's tasked with delivering a certain envelope for a friend. As soon as the envelope hits Wilee's backpack, a pursuit begins with Shannon's deranged New York City Police detective hot on the bicyclist's tail.
Flashbacks reveal the who and the why of the whole situation, and it's those moments when Premium Rush hits the brakes hard. Koepp's screenplay - written along with John Kamps - is streamlined, seemingly much of the fat that might bog a 90-minute movie told in relatively real time getting cut from the first act. It's when Koepp introduces those flashbacks, shows us how Shannon's cop got on Wilee's trail, shows us what the contents of the envelope mean and why it's so important, that the chase is broken up. Showing us instead of telling us is an obvious rule of thumb, but when it slows the pace of a film that needs to be extremely energetic, it's time to restructure.
A subplot with Wilee's is-she-or-isn't-she girlfriend, played by Dania Ramirez, adds some depth to the story, particularly when connections between characters begin revealing themselves. These connections add plot but very little substance. A few inexcusable choices are made with the story, some outlandish, some lame, some ridiculously sentimental. The reveal of what the contents of the envelope mean is meant to be heartfelt. It's just more padding, as if Koepp needed to get that running time to an hour and a half, and there wasn't enough budget to keep piling on the set pieces.
Which is where the good of Premium Rush is found. Even in this day and age of high tech special effects, computer generated images, and motion capture technology, nothing adds intensity to a chase more than putting the characters on the street and having the action play out on the pavement. The stunts and sequences in Premium Rush include bike riding against traffic, through traffic, hopping fences, and even breaking into a police impound garage. Most of these, along with Levitt appearing on the bike in most of the sequences, could have been pulled off using CGI. If that's the case, bravo for making it appear seamless, but that doesn't appear to be the case.
This movie looks to have Levitt and the rest of the cast who make up Wilee's fellow messengers - It becomes something of a gang mentality in the film, making it feel more than a little like Hackers - actually riding bikes at top speeds in New York City traffic. If this is the case, even bigger kudos are in order for Koepp who has a very keen eye for this kind of action. The chase in Premium Rush starts early, and though there are legs and stops and restarts, it essentially runs for the rest of the movie. For the most part, the director keeps that action always moving forward. Hey, just like Wilee. And as ludicrous as much of it appears to be, it's hard not to think that aspect was intentional, that Koepp knew how thin his movie was, didn't care, and wanted to crank everything about it to the maximum.
Some of Premium Rush feels that way, but it's unfortunate that little of the cast here seems to be on the same page. Levitt plays the maverick lead with the same disdain for authority protagonists in films like this require, but there's not even a smile in his eye as he's running bike cops into car doors and chasing a fellow messenger at 50 miles per hour. All of the fun on the acting side is left to Shannon, who takes that challenge and sets it on fire. The part of a dirty cop trying to chase down a MacGuffin could have easily been played straight, with intensity and a sense of real threat. Shannon plays the role as he would comic relief, a bumbling low-life whose misguided actions cause a bad day for quite a few people. It's an interesting choice, as are some of the lines he throws out, and both Shannon and Koepp deserve credit for making the character the film's one shining star. What else did we expect from Shannon, though?
Actually, we didn't expect him, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for that matter, to appear in a movie like Premium Rush, a slick, speedy thriller that has little edge and even less creativity. That opening narration comes right at the start, and it's not even the first indication the film is headed for a wall of cliches. The Who's "Baba O'Riley" over the opening credits was the first clue. But, as typical and, yes, dumb as the film is, it's steady delivery of rapid-fire stunts and a bat-shit performance from Michael Shannon keeps Premium Rush from being a total loss. It's biggest crime is that it came out in the wrong decade.
Jeremy's Rating: 6.5 out of 10