Premium Rush (2012)

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For the fun of the ride

It must indeed be a “premium rush” (title of David Koepp’s new movie) to ride a bike at high speed through heavy Manhattan traffic. The protagonist, Wilee, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a bike messenger, and the title is a category of top priority delivery provided by the service. There are times when electronic transmission won’t do, and somebody has to physically carry something from uptown to downtown.

Gordon-Levitt’s character is a member of the Kerouac-esque league of ultra-fit outcasts. He went to Columbia University (at 116th Street and Broadway, on the Upper West Side) and was on his way to becoming a lawyer, but the idea of offices and gray suits makes his balls shrivel up. For the time being he spends his days on the “fixie” — a bike with only one fixed gear, which he has fitted with no brakes — which he was awarded by his peers for being the hottest daredevil rider three years running. Fixies are a hipster favorite these days. This one has an ultra-strong sleeve-welded steel frame, and the lack of gears is said to have been invented by NYC bike messengers (who’re some 1500-strong) because no gears means no maintenance problems in winter, also an unusual degree of control and closeness to the road.

The pleasure of the movie is in the crazy rides, the hot bikes, and the fun Gordon-Levitt and his stunt doubles take in defying all the laws of traffic and physics, shooting the wrong way along streets crammed with vehicles. Lacking the budget for elaborate special effects, Koepp uses loud timeline titles and Google-map-like illustrations of the routes the bikers are taking and quick previews of the crashes Wilee might have if he took the wrong way around some road obstacle. If you’ve biked in urban settings like me, these crash shots will bring back memories of cuts and bruises you have known.

Oh yes, the plot. Wilee’s dispatcher Raj (the now ubiquitous Aasif Mandvi) sends him to pick up a small envelope from Nima (Jamie Chung) at Columbia — who he happens to know — she’s the soon-to-be ex-roommate of his almost-ex girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who’s a bike messenger too. Wilee does not know this, but the envelope he picks up from Nima contains a chit for a Chinese Hawala money transfer. It’s to go to people in Chinatown. He also does not know this, but Billy Monday (Michael Shannon), a dirty NYPD cop addicted to Chinese Pai Gow poker, has been told to intercept the chit to pay off a big debt he has incurred playing this game.

Wilee uses all his wiles and deathwish daredevilry as a rider to bypass Bobby Monday. Nima’s money transfer is all her savings, and it’s in a good (if illegal) cause: to pay to smuggle her tiny son in from China. To make things more dramatic, the boy and an eldery female minder are waiting at the docks even as we speak. One of the additional obstacles is a NYPD bike cop Wilee rubs the wrong way (Christopher Place). Wilee gets help along the way not only from a rival for Vanessa’s affection called Manny (Wolé Parks), a handsome, muscular dude whose bike has lots of gears, but ultimately from a flash mob converging on Chinatown involving dozens of messenger companies who instantly answer the call of a brother in need.

That’s about it, really. Koepp keeps it pretty real; as I mentioned, he didn’t have the dough for a lot of special effects anyway. Most of the riding is really what you see. Gordon-Leavitt didn’t do it all, but an end-credits video shows he paid his dues. Riding too fast at one point he precipitated himself into the back of a taxi and smashed the rear window. His arms protected his face, but one of them required 31 stitches. He thought this was cool. Joe, who’s made many interesting choices as an actor (Manic, 500 Days of Summer and Hesher might be mentioned), hit the big time with Inception, and his important role in The Dark Knight Rises has caused him to be called Chris Nolan’s “muse.” Michael Shannon, an amazing stage actor, has recently become a Hollywood A-lister too. The two actors appear to be taking a fun break between more serious projects with Premium Rush. Joe appears to be enjoying himself in every frame. There is nothing profound about this movie. Its plot line and character development lack complexity nor has its themes anything profound to say. Wilee’s motto is “I like to ride.”

To make up for the lack of profundity or CGI, Koepp indulges in some very tricky chronology, opening with a shot of Wilee crashing and landing on his back on the road, and going back and forth from there. Other flourishes? Luckily not too many. As the Variety review points out the movie runs out of ways to exploit Manhattan’s “anarchic geography” after a while, but admirably avoids genre pictures’ current pretensions and keeps its pleasures simple. And yet Shannon and Gordon-Levitt, an unusual pair to begin with, add a touch of class. In the end, though, with apologies to the immortal if tarnished Lance Armstrong, this time it is about the bike.

Premium Rush is out on DVD & blu-ray now.

DIRECTOR: DAVID KOEPP
SCREENWRITERS: DAVID KOEPP, JOHN KAMPS
STARRING: JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT, MICHAEL SHANNON, ASSIF MANDVI, DANIA RAMIREZ, JAMIE CHUNG, SEAN KENNEDY, CHRISTOPHER PLACE, WOLE’ PARKS
RUNTIME: 91 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

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