Don’t shoot the messenger
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, August 24, 2012
Bicycle messengers have to deal with a lot of risks. Car doors suddenly fling open, minivans make right turns without signaling, potholes can be a one-way ticket for a trip over the handlebars.
Or, as is the case in “Premium Rush,” a dirty cop can get in the way of what should be a straightforward courier job, shepherding an envelope from Morningside Heights to Chinatown.
That’s the premise of the breezy and entertaining, if imperfect, action flick starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the appropriately named Wilee, a Columbia Law School grad who opted for a life of adrenaline over one of suits and torts. He sails across Manhattan on a fixed-gear bike with no brakes. At least he wears a helmet, which comes in handy on many occasions, including the scene that opens the film: Wilee flies through the air amid windshield shards after somersaulting over a cab to the tune of “Baba O’Riley.” It’s 6:33 p.m. From there, the film immediately rewinds, taking the audience back to how the young man landed in this situation.
It’s been a tough day already, considering Wilee is having a fight with his girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), also a messenger. But it’s about to get a lot worse, after his boss at Security Courier gives him the task of picking up a package at Columbia. It’s a rush delivery, and he has 90 minutes to fly down Broadway and hand it to a woman named Sister Chen (potentially modeled on the real-life snakehead kingpin Sister Ping) in Chinatown.
A few things stand in Wilee’s way. One is a terrifying hotheaded police officer, Bobby Monday (a terrific Michael Shannon), who has his sights set on the envelope in Wilee’s messenger bag. Another is a bike cop, who doesn’t appreciate Wilee’s risky riding methods. There’s also Wilee’s messenger nemesis, Manny, a cyclist who wears spandex, rides a bike with gears (the horror!) and whose muscles are rivaled in size only by his massive pickup truck.
It’s a fun ride with well-drawn characters, and Gordon-Levitt, as always, is dependable as a watchable lead. Writer-director David Koepp has a way of immersing the audience in the action, setting the camera at handlebar height as Wilee weaves in and out of traffic. He also cleverly demonstrates Wilee’s thought process when it comes to choosing a path of least resistance. A white line shows that if he cuts right, he might hit that baby carriage, but going left would mean getting hit by a truck; straight ahead it is.
In that same vein, Koepp gives the film a strong sense of time and place. A clock pops up periodically to remind viewers that the minutes are winding down. The camera also zooms out occasionally to give a satellite view and show where in New York the action is taking place and how far Wilee must travel to reach his destination.
Yet as the movie unfolds, the story keeps flashing back with expository bits, explaining why Detective Monday is so interested in this envelope and what the mysterious little ticket inside actually means. It’s important information, but intercutting it into the chase significantly stalls the momentum. Meanwhile, a late-in-the-game plot point that seems destined to create an epic ending akin to the final heist in the 1999 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair” unfolds with a fizzle.
It might not be a noteworthy film, but “Premium Rush” delivers what it promises. The summertime diversion will give audiences a little jolt of nervous energy along with a few laughs. A rush is about making the most of the present, not creating lasting memories.
Contains language and violence.