Premium Rush is one hell of a ride – an action thriller, a chase spectacle, a mystery, and a tale of international intrigue all rolled into one gloriously adrenaline-hopped package. It was directed and co-written by David Koepp, who proves yet again that, no matter what genre he works in, his flair for outlandish material is his strong suit. To illustrate my point, consider Death Becomes Her, Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Stir of Echoes, Panic Room, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Secret Window, Ghost Town, and Angels & Demons, all films his name is attached to; there was nothing subtle about any of them, and they each achieved their own brand of success. Here, he plunges headfirst into pure slam-bang, high-octane fun, and never once does he allow anything pesky like plausibility get in the way.
The central character is Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a New York City bicycle delivery man whose life is nothing if not one huge adrenaline rush. He weaves in and out of traffic with reckless abandon, red lights and crowded sidewalks meaning nothing to him apart from challenges to be faced. He has long since removed the brake on his bike, not only preferring the speed but also believing that that piece of equipment does more harm than good. He possesses an inhuman ability to visualize three possible maneuvers and select one of them only a split second before he has to make it; inevitably, the first two end with him crashing into an oncoming car. These choices are represented, as they are at many points in the film, by an animated line like the ones you’d find on a GPS map.
The plot is constructed around a MacGuffin, specifically an envelope housing a ticket with a smiley face drawn on it. Wilee receives the envelope from a woman named Nima (Jamie Chung), who doesn’t delve into specifics and only instructs that it be delivered to Chinatown within thirty minutes. She insists that this is very important. Before Wilee can make his delivery, he’s stopped by a corrupt cop named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a compulsive gambler who needs the envelope in order to erase a debt with a Chinese loan shark. Wilee, knowing Monday isn’t being straightforward, refuses to comply and speeds away. So begins a frenetic chase up and down the streets of Manhattan. It isn’t long before Wilee’s dangerous pedaling attracts the attention of a bike cop, who soon turns his pursuit into a personal vendetta.
The film continuously goes back in time and shows earlier events from different perspectives. Gradually, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. We learn that Wilee is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who’s also a bicycle messenger. We learn that Vanessa was once Nima’s roommate; for personal reasons she couldn’t reveal, she had to ask Vanessa to leave. We learn of Wilee’s rival, a messenger named Manny (Wolé Parks), who eventually gets his hands on the envelope without realizing its importance and turns getting it back into a competition. Finally, we learn Nima’s back story and the significance of the ticket in the envelope. Naturally, my lips are sealed. It’s all rather convoluted, but it’s also exciting and incredibly engrossing.
Some will see the Monday character only as a caricature, given his manic personality and highly exaggerated New York accent. True enough, he is a caricature. But no one could have played him better than Michael Shannon, who has made a name for himself tackling memorable, highly intense roles. As Monday, he successfully walks the fine line between a menacing figure and comedy relief. It wouldn’t have been right to make him too frightening, for the story isn’t meant to be taken completely seriously. At the same time, making him too goofy would have been just as fatal. That’s because the concept, while certainly heightened, is emotionally anchored to reality. Indeed, there is a delicate balance at work throughout the entire film; that the scales are never tipped to one side is nothing short of miraculous.
Going into Premium Rush with what I had already heard about it, I expected to be entertained. I did not, however, expect to be kept on the edge of my seat in suspense, laughing and gasping at the story and characters, and deeply admiring the clever camerawork, the amazing stunts, the creative visual effects, and the taut pacing. I was completely blindsided. What a white-knuckle experience this is. A week ago, I had to endure a wretched action comedy called The Expendables 2, a testosterone-fueled fantasy that was devoid of intelligence, excitement, and a proper sense of fun. I hope the makers of that film see Premium Rush and study it carefully. Likewise, I hope audiences give it its due attention. Only then will they understand how the action genre is supposed to work.