Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a NYC bike messenger, one of the best, and he couldn’t be happier. Sure, it’d be nice if his girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) hadn’t broken up with him, if fellow biker Manny (Wole Parks) wasn’t making moves on that very same ex and if he made better money, but at least he loves his job. The freedom, the feeling of flying down the streets dodging people and cars, the feel of a single-gear bike with no brakes beneath him… he’s living the dream.
A late-in-the-day assignment leads Wilee to pick up an envelope from a distraught Nima (Jamie Chung) for delivery to Chinatown in ninety minutes or less. She says it’s important. Her eyes say it’s extremely important. A NYC detective named Robert Monday (Michael Shannon) agrees on its value for completely different and selfish reasons and sets out to retrieve the envelope from Wilee.
Cue ninety minutes of chases, competitive pedaling, Triad shenanigans, bikour and ridiculously easy games of Spot the Wilee Stunt Double. (Hint: He’s the one who looks nothing like Gordon-Levitt in the face or in the calves.)
“Brakes are death.”
Premium Rush gives hints of the mildly unfortunate ninety minutes to come almost immediately as Wilee speeds his way through traffic while narrating his love of the job. He approaches a busy intersection and the world effectively pauses as he ponders various routes with the aid of animated arrows and possible outcomes. Some are humorous, some are ridiculous, but they almost all end in accidents and probable death. He picks the appropriate one, “Play” is pressed on the action once again and he zips on through.
It’s a nifty scene the first couple times it’s used. It’s used about five times.
And the gimmicks don’t stop. Writer/director David Koepp (Ghost Town, Stir of Echoes) also plays around with time as the movie rewinds repeatedly to jump back and show events that led up to the present. It’s a distracting editing toy, digital onscreen clock included, that does little aside from interrupt the energy and flow of the action. The worst example comes in the third act when a fairly critical scene flashes to a bar night out with Wilee and Vanessa chatting about things we already know. It’s pointless, and like much of the film it doesn’t fit all that well with what’s around it.
Character-wise, Wilee and the other cyclists are rebels, purportedly, who choose the wind in their (helmeted) hair over a business suit, but in all honesty they come off as dicks when they’re on their bikes. They cause accidents and repeatedly endanger people’s safety, and we’re somehow meant to find them cool. And a brief word about CGI and stunt doubles. They’re not doing their job right if they’re plainly visible. Some of the bike in traffic scenes look legitimate, but more than a few feature the cyclist amidst obvious CGI or previously-shot cars. And I understand we can’t expect JGL to do all of his own stunts, but maybe next time find someone with similar sized calves.
Koepp’s biggest misstep here is in the film’s uncertainty as to what kind of movie it wants to be. An action movie? It needs better and more exciting stunts. A goofy, over the top bicycling romp? It needs to be far more outrageous and ridiculous. A serious thriller? It needs someone to tell Shannon to stop giggling.
Not so coincidentally, Shannon is the best element here as the only performer apparently aware that he’s in a tonally ambivalent mish-mash of an action movie. From his constant self identification as Forrest J. Ackerman, to his occasionally constipated looks of frustration, to his maniacal glee when he thinks something’s about to go right for him, he’s the wild, unpredictable energy missing from the rest of the movie.
Premium Rush is light as air entertainment that offers a few chuckles and fewer thrills. It’s always good to see Shannon on the big screen, and he’s clearly having a fine time here which is also fun to watch. The action scenes though are a mixed bag of excitement and obvious CGI/stunt doubles, both of which remove you at least slightly from the moment. Fans of Mapquest will enjoy it, but everyone else may want to let this one ride on by.
The Upside: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is affable as always; Michael Shannon gets to cut loose; Jamie Chung is still adorable
The Downside: Sloppy writing and editing; CGI and cyclist stunt double way too obvious way too frequently; tonal issues; casual acceptance of the damage caused by the film’s “cool” bike messengers; ninety minutes long but feels much longer; Jamie Chung’s highly suspect Chinese accent
On the Side: Kevin Bacon’s Quicksilver was released twenty six years ago.