Shot almost two years ago, bumped from various release dates and tucked away at the end of this summer like a neglected stepchild, the new bike messenger thriller Premium Rush (yes, you read that right -- a bike messenger thriller) turns out to be the season's most nimble and purely enjoyable popcorn flick. The Avengers might have a gazillion superheroes kicking ass, Prometheus might have dazzling sci-fi spectacle and The Dark Knight Rises might have Anne Hathway in a form-fitting catsuit, but Premium Rush possesses something all those movies lack: sheer, exhilarating speed.
Beyond being tickled by the sheer oddity of a mainstream action movie about bicycle messengers, I should admit that a lot of my enthusiasm for Premium Rush stems from the fact that I'm a sucker for almost any movie with a well-executed ticking clock scenario and here, director and co-writer David Koepp comes up with a doozy. After a long day zipping along the car-choked streets and pedestrian-populated sidewalks of Manhattan delivering packages, one-time law student turned professional bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, looking ultra fit) -- yes, as in the coyote -- scores a last-minute assignment before quitting time. The job is to get a thin envelope from Columbia University at 116th Street all the way down to Chinatown at the lower end of the island by 7 PM... a 90-minute window to bike over a 100 blocks.
Normally this trip would be a snap for the street-savvy Wilee, but it turns out that there are more obstacles to this particular job than jaywalkers or cabbies with a death wish. See, the envelope he's ferrying holds a marker for a large amount of cash, the safe delivery of which is of vital importance to the woman (Jamie Chung) sending it downtown. But recovering the cash is equally important to Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), the corrupt New York City cop whose gambling debts have forced him to bend the law, lest he wind up in prison... or worse, six feet under. With Bobby in hot pursuit, Wilee hightails it from Columbia to Chinatown by whatever route necessary -- down Broadway, along the footpaths of Central Park, through the random parking garage and/or bodega -- dodging both literal and metaphorical potholes, the latter of which include a dogged bike safety officer (Christopher Place), his rival for the title of Best Bike Messenger in Manhattan, Manny (Wolé Parks) and, last but not least, his estranged girlfriend and fellow rider, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez a.k.a. the chick with the bleeding eyes from Heroes).
At a time when almost every blockbuster feels about a half-hour too long, Premium Rush benefits by clocking in at a zippy 90 minutes, the same amount of time that Wilee has to deliver his precious cargo. That kind of tight schedule thankfully doesn't leave much room for momentum-killing exposition and, besides the insertion of a few flashbacks that flesh out the stakes involved, Koepp rarely cuts away from the chase. His star meets him head-on, with Gordon-Levitt showing off an action movie swagger here that we haven't seen from him before, even in his recent appearance in The Dark Knight Rises. It's the same jump that Keanu Reeves made when he helped pilot that out-of-control bus in Speed back in 1994. (Gordon-Levitt even has the same close-cropped crew cut that Reeves sported in that contemporary action classic.) It would have been easy to inadvertently play Wilee as a giant prick, but Gordon-Levitt makes his almost absurd levels of self-assurance appealing. He's a guy that's most effective when he's in motion and the actor is always on the go; even in the rare moments that he's standing still, his mind is obviously racing a mile a minute. Unfortunately for Wilee (but fortunately for us), his onscreen nemesis isn't just going to stand around eating his dust. If Gordon-Levitt channels Keanu from Speed, than Shannon goes full-on Dennis Hopper, delivering all his lines in a braying New York accent and bugging his already freaky eyes out like Jim Carrey in The Mask. It's a hilariously over-the-top performance that fits the tone of the movie perfectly. Here's hoping his version of General Zod in Zack Snyder's upcoming Superman flick is this much fun.
So you've got a tense ticking clock, a cool hero and a kooky villain. What's left? How about great chase sequences! The bike-based action in Premium Rush is a blast to watch, thanks largely to Koepp's decision to shoot it all on the streets of New York (no soundstages here) and rely primarily on practical stunts with few digital enhancements. (The most noticeable use of CGI occurs in a running "bike-o-vision" gag, where Wilee takes a split-second to imagine the possible fates for himself based on the routes available to him in the moment. It's a very funny visual flourish that the director is careful not to run into the ground.) To be honest, the cuts between the stunt riders and the stars aren't seamless; there are more than a few shots where you can quite clearly tell that Gordon-Levitt isn't the guy riding that gearless, brakeless bike towards certain doom. But the overall illusion isn't spoiled, because that's still a real person doing that real stunt and not a digitized actor being put in harm's way. As a result, there's a palpable sense of danger to Premium Rush that you don't always get from the more F/X-heavy summer movies, where everything often seems to be taking place in a computer. (And people really did get hurt in the making of this movie; stay through the closing credits to see iPhone footage of the accident that sent Gordon-Levitt through the back window of a yellow cab, resulting in a wound that required 31 stitches.)
Look, obviously it's the end of the summer and you're worn out from repeated trips to the multiplex to see big event movies that more often than not leave you feeling underwhelmed. But that's what makes Premium Rush so well-timed. Sandwiched between the last gasp of the summer's blockbuster bloat and the star of the fall's crop of serious-minded prestige pictures, here's a 90-minute chaser that offers genuine escapist entertainment as well as a a pair of great performances and clever plotting. Short of actually riding your own bike headlong into traffic on the way to see it, it's the purest adrenaline rush you could have from the comfort of a movie theater.
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