When I first saw the trailer for Premium Rush, I was somewhat taken aback. Here were Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon – two phenomenal, top-of-the line actors who have thrived both in independent and Hollywood films – both choosing to star in what looked like a cliché chase film for the hipster generation. But while Joseph Gordon-Levitt does ride a fixed-gear bike, this film offers a bit more substance than we were lead to believe.
Drawing on the real-world phenomenon of New York bike messenger services, Premium Rush focuses on Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a classically roguish character whose propensity for danger and unnecessary risk make him a hot commodity. So naturally, when a very special package from an old acquaintance needs to be delivered speedily and securely, Wilee is the only man for the job. And, for reasons that become clear later in the film, a man named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) has a vested interest in stopping Wilee’s run as fast as possible.
Both Michael Shannon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt don’t have a lot of room to breathe in this film. Under David Koepp, they are forced into ordinary character archetypes. Shannon, whose sheer intensity and subtlety was perhaps Take Shelter‘s best asset, takes on the overdone persona of a gruff, tragic blue-collar man with a tinny New York accent. Gordon-Levitt, who has a big talent for serious drama, is saddled with long, exciting bicycle chase scenes interspersed with glib transitional dialogue. But in the end, while these characters do feel 2-dimensional, they are well suited to the story of Premium Rush.
This all makes for a fun, action-packed romp of a movie. The bike riding is clear – no shaky-cam to be found – and some very well-timed humor is peppered throughout the story to keep the audience smiling. Director David Koepp also made the choice to frame many shots in the movie as if they were part of a map application on a smart phone, which makes the movie feel modern and relevant while giving it a pleasing overall aesthetic.
Still, the film does run into two major issues despite its reasonable 91 minute runtime. First and foremost, subpar pacing makes Premium Rush feel longer than it should given its subject matter. Throughout the film, we are periodically shown flashbacks used to explain current events. In the first quarter or so of the movie, these moments are placed perfectly so that we get just enough background information to understand the proceedings. Unfortunately, as Premium Rush continues, we are subjected to longer and longer flashbacks which distract the audience from Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s protagonist and the matter at hand.
Moreover, many of these sequences focus on the side characters of Wilee’s ex, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and rival, Manny (Wolé Parks) – but we are never given satisfactory reason to care about these people or their motivations. One particular scene midway through the film where Manny and Wilee are locked in contest feels shoehorned because their rivalry isn’t fleshed out until a flashback near the film’s end. Because of this, Manny and Vanessa feel more like plot devices than real and relatable foils for the protagonist.
The second major issue is tonal, something that plagued that other major blockbuster starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt this summer: The Dark Knight Rises. As I said earlier, most of the film is quite light with some laugh-out-loud moments that really help the audience connect with the characters. However, a dark backstory both for the package that Wilee has to deliver, as well as for the character of Bobby Monday, are slowly revealed during the film’s second and third acts. While these stories are plausible and give some sense of realism to the plot, they feel incongruous with the pervasive running jokes and genuinely charming bicycle scenes.
Your money could be spent on much worse than Premium Rush. Koepp’s direction is solid, the primary actors are top-notch, despite a lack of room to express themselves in their given roles, and the plot is fun. Its most redeeming feature is ultimately its ability to keep the audience guessing and invested in its characters and story. I think we all know that Premium Rush won’t win any awards this year, but as an action film, it’s a solid, smart offering to round out the summer of 2012.
Verdict: Movie Win