‘Premium Rush’ Review
‘Premium Rush.’ With a title like that, it could be a line of Starbucks energy drinks, or a boutique line of snowboards, or a reality show about people trying to find the best possible deal on car insurance. Alas, ‘Premium Rush’ is instead a humdrum chase movie about a bike messenger pursued through Manhattan by a man who wants the envelope he’s been hired to deliver.
Co-writer/director David Koepp assembles all the right elements for a knowingly small-scale thriller, and the early scenes crackle with mystery and humor. But at a certain point, he has to turn over his cards and reveal his story’s secrets, and what you’re left with after that point is a one-note film about a biker darting in and out traffic over and over again.
The biker is named Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a law school dropout and speed addict (speed the concept, not speed the drug). As Wilee makes clear in several voiceovers and numerous conversations, his ride has just one speed and no breaks. “Can’t stop,” he says, “don’t want to. Brakes are death.” This seems like a really stupid ethos for a bike messenger, but it’s a smart one for an action movie whose success depends entirely on constant forward momentum.
Ironically, though, ‘Premium Rush’ doesn’t quite share its hero’s propulsive spirit. Koepp and co-writer John Kamps’ screenplay keeps rewinding into the recent past to explain the various characters’ motivations. Just after Wilee picks up the MacGuffin from a law student named Nima (Jamie Chung), he’s stopped by a sharply-dressed, fast-talking man named Robert Monday (Michael Shannon). Cue a lengthy, monotonous chase through the Upper West Side, and then a flashback to several hours earlier, where we learn who Monday is and why he wants that envelope so badly. Koepp later uses the same gimmick to flesh out Nima and Wilee’s on-again-off-again bike messenger girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) as well.
Each layer of flashback adds more pieces to the overall puzzle, and it’s impressive to see how carefully they all fit together. But if the construction of the puzzle is interesting, the actual picture made from the assembled pieces is a bit of a snooze. To his credit, Koepp tries his best to keep Wilee’s race downtown exciting, with lots of unusual camera angles (handlebar POV, spoke POV) and even a sort of ‘Matrix’-esque bullet time technique — I called it “Bike-O-Vision” — where Wilee freezes time at dangerous intersections and imagines the outcome of each potential route until he finds one that doesn’t end with him pancaked on the pavement. It’s silly, but at least it’s different. Otherwise, everything reeks of sameness. Each chase is just like the last one; Wilee on the run from Monday, or hunting down a rival messenger, or evading a bike cop, or running from Monday and a bike cop at the same time. Twenty minutes in, Koepp’s bag of camera tricks is just about empty, and he’s still got seventy minutes of movie left to fill.
The best stuff has nothing to do with bicycles. Shannon, so good in last year’s ‘Take Shelter,’ gives yet another live-wire performance, filling Monday with all kinds of weird but incredibly watchable ticks. And the movie does a nice job of capturing the real New York City’s grit and grime, the kind of stuff that gets glossed over in most mainstream entertainment. I can’t remember the last Manhattan-set movie with so many hideous linoleum floors.
Still, ‘Premium Rush’ rarely delivers on its title’s promise of high-class excitement. Wilee’s nickname — “The Coyote” — suggests the movie might be intended as an homage to old school ‘Looney Tunes,’ but you’d never see a Road Runner cartoon this tiresomely repetitive. Like its hero’s bike, ‘Premium Rush’ only has one speed.‘Premium Rush’ is in theaters now.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’