David Koepp’s “Premium Rush” is the best cycling movie in some time… Heck, can anyone remember the last cycling movie that came out? I keep thinking it was Hal Needham’s “Rad,” but that came out in 1986. There’s also no topping the classic “Breaking Away,” the cycling movie many aspire to be like. Anyway it doesn’t matter because “Premium Rush” delivers the goods like any action film should, and it does so with terrific acting, sharp writing, and what looks like the real thing and not CGI as we watch these daredevil bike messengers throttle their way through the insanely busy streets of New York City.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee who is seen as one of the very best bicycle messengers in New York as he gets things to where they need to be and right on schedule. Of course, this requires him to travel at breakneck speeds through busy traffic where car downs can open up at the most inconvenient time, and he also has to deal with various members of the NYPD who have it in for him and others in his line of work. Oh yeah, Wilee’s bike of choice has only one gear and he’s taken the breaks off of it so that nothing will slow him down (that’s how he rolls).
Looking at that description makes one wonder if Wilee has a death wish or if he’s just an adrenaline junkie. What we learn though is that he came close to becoming a lawyer, but the idea of sitting behind a desk in some office does not appeal to him in the slightest. Of course, it probably wouldn’t appeal to anyone who’s seen “Office Space.”
His ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), however, entertains thoughts of working in an office as she doesn’t want to be a bike messenger forever (she does say though that it beats waiting tables). There’s also Tito (Anthony Chisholm) who doesn’t let his advanced age make him any less useful in this line of work (nor should it), and Manny (Wolé Parks) who competes with Wilee not just on a bike but for Vanessa as well.
This one particular day has Wilee delivering a package that has caught the attention of NYPD cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon). Now Monday wants what Wilee has, but while Wilee is not always one to obey the rules of the road, he does follow the strict guidelines of his job which states that messengers will not hand over the package they’re delivering to anyone other than who it is meant for. As a result, Monday begins chasing Wilee down as we find out that this NYPD cop, like any other stupid gambling addict, has an unforgivably high debt to pay off.
David Koepp is best known as a screenwriter, having penned such screenplays like “Jurassic Park,” “Spider-Man,” and “Panic Room.” Along with co-writer John Kamps, Koepp has great fun telling the story of “Premium Rush” in a non-linear fashion. The movie goes back and forth in time as the actions of the characters are made more understandable and given more depth. This way of storytelling may alienate certain audience members, but I liked it as it plays around with our perceptions of what we believe to be true. Just when you think you know what’s going on in this somewhat formulaic story, something comes along which changes the way you see things.
As a director, Koepp has had varying degrees of success with movies like “The Trigger Effect,” “Stir of Echoes” and “Secret Window,” but here he manages to keep the action exciting and never for one second lets it drag. It also helps that the cycling done in this movie appears to be for real, and it makes me wonder how it was choreographed and who these stunt people are who dared to pedal fast while cars come at them in all sorts of directions.
People may debate whether this movie might serve as a recruitment gig for bike messengers, but it also shows how painful it can be when you crash into something (and odds are you will). There’s also a scene during the end credits which shows Levitt’s arm all bloody after he hit the back window of a taxi cab, and that makes up for the lack of a disclaimer.
Levitt has had great success in the last few years with movies like “(500) Days of Summer,” “Inception” and this year’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” and he is fantastic here as a character named after that coyote who chased the Road Runner endlessly. This role could have been given to some actor who would have annoyed us with their overwhelming ego, but Levitt makes this character likable despite his insane bike-riding habits.
You also have ace character actor Michael Shannon on board here as an undeniably dirty. It doesn’t matter what movie he’s in because Shannon never disappoints in giving us a great performance, and as Bobby Monday he makes what could have been a mere one-dimensional villain all the more colorful. We’ve seen corrupt cops like this one in so many different movies, but Shannon makes him seem more intriguing than what originally appeared on the written page.
The rest of the cast from Dania Ramirez (whom you may remember as AJ’s girlfriend on “The Sopranos”) to the always entertaining Aasif Mandvi succeed in making this movie all the more entertaining to watch. The action is also given an exciting and propulsive score by David Sardy and a beautifully sunny look by cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen. Heck, watching this movie makes you almost as sweaty as the summer heat that’s been boiling us this past August.
“Premium Rush” is nothing spectacular, but it is fun to watch. It’s a shame that it’s not doing better at the box office, although I do have to say that Columbia Pictures kind of screwed up its release. Watching it reminds us who don’t ride bikes anymore how fun and very dangerous it can be. If nothing else, it does make wearing a helmet while riding a bike for more appealing than it ever has been before.
* * * out of * * * *
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