REVIEW: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Brings Sweaty Substantiality To Entertaining, Exasperating Premium Rush
The indomitable bike messenger played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush is named Wilee, as in Wile E. Coyote, the less successful half of Looney Tunes' eternal desert chase duo. A few minutes into the movie, however, it becomes clear he's more like the Road Runner: Wiry and whippet thin, Wilee darts through Manhattan traffic on his fixed gear bike — chain lock wrapped around his waist — thumbing his nose at the NYPD and evading the dogged pursuit of corrupt detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon). No Chamois Ass is he.
Though Wilee is introduced via a spectacular slow-motion crash set to the sunny opening strains of The Who's "Baba O'Riley," he carries himself through most of the film with a cartoonish sense of imperviousness that could be interpreted as a death wish even before he gets entangled with dirty cops and Chinese gangsters.
A favorite trick of the film — directed by David Koepp (Secret Window, Stir of Echoes) from a screenplay he wrote with John Kamps— has Wilee mentally projecting different paths through tight situations until he susses out the one that doesn't leave him smeared on the sidewalk. It's a device that underscores the character's precarious vulnerability as he jockeys with all of the heavy metal vehicles careening through the streets of New York. This fuels the chase sequences with excitement and a looming sense of consequence.
It's a good thing too, since the bulk of the film consists of one kind of heart-pounding pursuit or another. Premium Rush is a half-entertaining, half-exasperating movie — one that sells you on the notion of New York bike messengers as great fodder for cinema but then doesn't know how to build a feature around them. It barely has enough forward motion to make it through its 91-minute run time and spins its wheels — pun totally intended — with sequences (like one in an impound lot) that feel like blatant filler.
Premium Rush bobs and weaves stylistically using backward jumps in time to fill in plot details and cuts to a Google Maps-style city grid that establishes the locations of the characters — but ultimately there's only so much you can do on a bike. The movie tends to get muddled and laggy when the characters hop off their two-wheelers to actually talk, because they're not good at talking. This is the kind of film in which you constantly find yourself thinking that a particular bit of trouble could have been avoided by characters either coming clean about their problems or yelling for help when the bad guys roll their way.
Wilee turns out to be a Columbia Law School grad who chooses to ride all day rather than take the bar exam because, he explains in voiceover, "I can't work in an office." (The crushing student loans he has to be shouldering apparently aren't burdening his free spirit.) He's got a fellow messenger girlfriend named Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) and a professional and romantic rival in the muscular Manny (Wolé Parks), who dares to have gears on his bike.
The main action in Premium Rush takes place from around 5pm to 7pm, as Wilee heads uptown to his alma mater to pick up a package from Vanessa's roommate Nima (Jamie Chung) that Bobby is very anxious to intercept.
What's in the package isn't worth going into — it's a means for the film to travel to a number of distinctly New York locations. Premium Rush depicts the city as vibrant and lived-in, from the dive bar where bike messengers gather (to watch an extremely intimate live show by the band Sleigh Bells) to a plant-lined street in the flower district, to the back-room Chinatown gambling den where wry bookies and hoods watch the impulsive Bobby dig himself a deep hole playing pai gow.
Shannon has a great time chewing the scenery as the off-the-rails detective, and Gordon-Levitt continues to prove that he's an intriguingly unconventional action hero, albeit one who comes across as a little smug in this movie. That said, he brings a sweaty substantiality to the scenes of Wilee diving through traffic against a light or hitching a ride on a cab. Like seasoned Manhattan cyclists, Gordon-Levitt rides as if his bike is an extension of his body.
While the film's pop psychologizing about Wilee's choice of wheels would make even the most devoted of fixie fanatics roll their eyes -- he doesn't want to stop, and he can't, because he doesn't believe in brakes -- there's definite romance to be found here in the whirling of spokes, the communing of man and machine, and the crazy freedom of cutting through a dense urban landscape like sleek fish easily navigating the currents of a stream.
Follow Alison Willmore on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.