Quick, off the top of your head, name some dangerous jobs, lines of work where risking life and limb are all part of the daily grind. Fighter pilot? Fireman? SWAT Officer? Naval Diver? How about bicycle courier? Fuelled not by diesel nor octane, just adrenaline, these daredevil deliverymen (and women) put the ‘special’ in ‘special delivery’, and the ‘rush’ in ‘rush delivery’, taking the merciless New York traffic head on.
The idea of an action story based around the world of bike messengers is not completely new: there was the 80s film Quicksilver, starring Kevin Bacon, Taylor Lautner’s upcoming flick Tracers, and the 1998 novel The Ultimate Rush – the author of which has actually sued the filmmakers of Premium Rush for copyright infringement. Still, it is pretty novel to see the central vehicles in high-speed road chases not be muscle cars, souped-up choppers or Humvees, but rather comparatively humble bicycles. The key is in making said chases still feel exciting, still having them carry an element of danger in spite of the more mundane modes of transportation used to carry them out.
Premium Rush’s greatest strength is that the chases – and there are loads of ‘em – do indeed feel intense and exhilarating. Director David Koepp and his crew had the task of getting audiences’ blood pumping as they stay seated for two hours, and Premium Rush does a mighty fine job in that regard, with dynamic camerawork and a real tactile feel to the action, genuine enough to draw gasps from all those very, very close calls. There are however, one or two spots where one can tell that Gordon-Levitt has been replaced by a stunt double. The film may have gotten a little carried away in the style department, with sequences showing how Wilee mentally maps out the immediate path to take in “bike vision”, and a visual representation of New York City in miniature buildings-3D map style. At times, this can get a little too dizzying, and one gets the sense that perhaps Koepp was trying a mite too hard to make this ‘cool’ and ‘hip’.
The story is rather straightforward and this is an old-school chase flick at heart. Our hero has something the villain wants, and thus needs to evade the villain by any means necessary. There is actually nothing wrong with this relatively simple story, and it is made more interesting by being told in non-linear fashion, the action occasionally flashing back to show how we got here. It can be a little distracting, but it also adds a layer or two to the proceedings. The plot can be compared to that of the Jason Statham-starring film Safe, also involving a protagonist caught in a web of Chinese mobsters and dirty cops. However, where Safe was generic and boring, Premium Rush is frequently refreshing and a lot of fun.
And then there are the performances, which truly elevate the material. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfectly cast as Wilee, the combination of youthful energy and focused intensity he brings to the part well-suited to a bike messenger living life on the absolute edge. Dania Ramirez as his love interest and colleague is good too, she brings a certain physicality to the part of Vanessa and with those toned arms and the athleticism she displays, it isn’t hard at all to buy her as someone who cycles at 50 mph for a living. Wole Parks as the requisite rival is annoying, but then again the character is meant to be. Jamie Chung is a tad stiff and struggles somewhat with her Mandarin Chinese lines, but is okay anyway.
The show is stolen squarely by Michael Shannon as corrupt policeman Det. Bobby Monday – and it seems that was the actor’s intention to begin with. Shannon will play Superman villain General Zod in next year’s Man of Steel, and if his turn as the antagonist here is any indication, Supes had better watch out. Shannon’s portrayal is utterly unhinged, and he manages to be over-the-top yet still intimidating, his Det. Monday sometimes comic, but always scary. It brings to mind Gary Oldman’s iconic portrayal of psychotic DEA Agent Stansfield in The Professional, and while Shannon may come off as a little goofy to some, he still makes for a memorable adversary to Wilee.
Premium Rush makes for a pretty exciting time at the theatre, its buoyant tone with tongue somewhat in cheek making sure it’s always light on its feet – or its two wheels, as it were. Perhaps where it went a little off track was in gearing itself a little too much towards the younger set.
SUMMARY: Lightning-paced entertainment that doesn’t stop to put on the brakes, but has a basic narrative bodywork and sometimes gets a little carried away in its stylisation.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 STARS