Directed by: David Koepp.
Written by: David Koepp & John Kamps.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Wilee), Michael Shannon (Bobby Monday), Dania Ramirez (Vanessa), Wolé Parks (Manny), Aasif Mandvi (Raj), Jamie Chung (Nima), Christopher Place (Bike Cop).
The problem many action movies have is that they take themselves too seriously. In among all the chase sequences and gun battles, the rest of the plots often try to make some larger point – or show that the filmmakers have something greater on their minds that simply action. If done well – like Skyfall or the Nolan Batman films – this can elevate the films above the normal trappings of the genre. If not done well, they can become self-serious bores. The charm of David Koepp’s Premium Rush is that it takes absolutely nothing seriously. The film is essentially one big, long chase sequence through the streets of Manhattan, and is pretty much completely unbelievable from beginning to end. But the film knows this, roles with it, and the result is a film that while it may not stay with you, is almost impossibly entertaining while you are watching it.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee (like the Coyote) a bike messenger in Manhattan, who once went to law school, but never took the bar exam. He likes being on the streets of New York on his bike too much. His bike has no gears and no brakes – he considers both dangerous – and he basically dodges in and out of traffic, risking his life at every moment of his day. He often plays out what will happen if he dodges this way or that way in the split second before he has to make a decision – and most of the time, if he chooses around, he’ll up being killed by a car.
At the end of another day, he gets one final assignment – pick up an envelope from Columbia University and deliver it to Chinatown. He knows the sender – Nima (Jamie Chung), because she is roommates with his girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and thinks nothing of this delivery. It’s a long ride, and needs to be there in an hour and half, but it will pay him well. So off he heads to Columbia – and picks up the envelope. It’s there where he meets the man who will become his nemesis – Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who tells him he needs that envelope back – right now. But Wilee has a code – once the envelope goes into his bag, it doesn’t come out again until it reaches its destination. It would have been much simpler had he just turned it over.
Eventually, we’ll learn the backstory behind everything – what precisely is in the envelope, why it’s so important to Nima to see it delivered on time, and why Monday wants it so badly as well. It doesn’t really matter though. The envelope is a classic MacGuffin – it doesn’t matter what’s in the damn thing, it just matters that everyone wants it so badly.
The movie is extremely well made by Koepp. He doesn’t slow let the movies pace slow down very much through its entire running time, and even if the chases themselves become increasingly impossible, he handles them all with style. If you want to simply turn your brain off and enjoy the ride, then you’ll have a good time. If, like me, you cannot quite do that, you’ll marvel at everything being done in the movie as you try to figure just exactly how they did that.
The two lead performances help the movie a great deal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a great actor, but here he coasts on his natural charm – but does so to great effect. You instantly like him and that never wavers. Even better is Michael Shannon as Bobby Monday, who seems at times to be trying to amuse himself with wacky vocal ticks, but it’s still a blast to see one of the great actors of his generation let loose and have fun for once.
I’m not going to argue that Premium Rush is a great movie – it isn’t. But damn it, if it isn’t a fun ride for just under 90 minutes. During this time of year, when every week seems to bring an “important” movie to theater, spending 90 minutes at home with this one brought a smile to me face.