Premium Rush (United States, 2012)August 24, 2012
It comes as a bit of a surprise that, for consistently suspenseful chase sequences, the pick of the 2012 summer crop is the under-the-radar thriller from writer/director David Koepp, Premium Rush. The average chase, filmed with the traditional selection of shots, is often so staid as to be sleep-inducing. Content has something to do with why Premium Rush percolates with tension: we haven't thus far been inundated with scenes of high-speed bicycles weaving in and out of traffic in Manhattan. But Koepp's direction deserves credit, as well. He varies the way the chases are shown without ever going shaky-cam on us. We are treated to mid-range shots, overhead shots, and point-of-view shots. There are clever moments in which glimpses are provided of accident-avoiding "alternatives." Cut left, and a pedestrian would be hit. Go right, and a baby stroller would be hit. But swerve around a car stopped in the middle of an intersection, and it will be clear sailing. The movie speeds along crisply, providing just enough exposition to lend a few pounds of emotional weight without bogging down the breakneck pace.
Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the best of New York City's bicycle messengers. He's the guy you call when FedEx isn't fast enough. He uses a GPS but usually doesn't need it. He flies through the streets with abandon, swerving in and out of traffic, occasionally causing accidents, and putting himself at constant risk of death or injury. His bicycle has neither gears nor brakes. He doesn't coast; he peddles. He's not the only one on the streets delivering letters at $30 apiece. His on-again off-again girlfriend, Vanessa (Diana Ramirez), is a messenger as well, as is too-cool-for-school Manny (Wole Parks). Their lives are dangerous enough without the problem they're about to face.
Vanessa's roommate, Nima (Jamie Chung), is trying to smuggle her young son out of China. In order to do so, she needs a ticket to be delivered to a woman in Chinatown before 7 pm. Who better to do this than Wilee. But the ticket is worth a lot of money and a crooked cop, Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), needs it to clear his gambling debts. When "gentle" tactics don't work, he starts to get rough. This leads to one of the film's most innovate chase scenes, with Monday's car trying to overtake Wilee's bike. It becomes apparent that, while cars are bigger, meaner, and faster, they're not always the best when it comes to navigating the traffic clogged streets of Manhattan at rush hour.
Koepp uses an economical storytelling method, relying on quick flashbacks to fill in the details. There's never an instance when more than a few minutes passes without some kind of action scene. A combination of daredevil activity by the actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt reportedly ended up with more than 30 stitches after one incident), expert stunt drivers, and CGI creates the illusion that these characters are doing some very dangerous things. It's all based (loosely) on fact: In New York, if you're a pedestrian, the two things of which you must be the most aware are the taxis and the bicycle messengers.
Koepp is better known in Hollywood circles for A-list screenplays: Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, and so forth. His directorial efforts have been smaller but never uninteresting. They include The Trigger Effect, Stir of Echoes, and Secret Window. Premium Rush provides him with another respectable title to add to his resume.
Two top-notch performances anchor Premium Rush. The first belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose Hollywood stock has risen dramatically in the past few years as he has shown the ability to be a dorky romantic lead (500 Days of Summer), a cancer patient (50/50), and an action hero (The Dark Knight Rises). He does a lot with a little here, not only anchoring a number of chase scenes but helping to cement the film's gooey emotional core. Meanwhile, Michael Shannon enjoys himself immensely, playing a deliciously detestable bad guy. He never tries to be remotely sympathetic; he's a sleaze and a badass and he knows it. He also provides some of Premium Rush's most darkly comedic moments. This movie is not without its laughs.
The most difficult challenge for Columbia Pictures is marketing the film, but the seemingly obscure premise should not be a deterrent to seeing this because, unlike many of the summer's biggest offerings, this one delivers. And, in the end, little else matters.
Premium Rush (United States, 2012)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: David Koepp & John Camps
Cinematography: Mitchell Amundsen
Music: David Sardy