After a mixed bag of a summer, Premium Rush is a welcome surprise at the cinema. Arriving at the midpoint of the “Year of Joseph Gordon-Levitt”, Premium Rush takes a simple story and adds enough visual flair and inventiveness to make it worth checking out.
Premium Rush follows Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a New York City bicycle messenger who ends up carrying a package that Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a dirty police cop, needs badly. The setup is simple and leads to ninety-minutes of chasing with more and more people joining in at every turn. By the end of the movie the only people missing from the chase are a marching band.
The plot of Premium Rush didn’t sound that appealing to me, and probably won’t to most other people, but the film is amplified by the execution. David Koepp (writer of Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible; director of Ghost Town) directed and co-wrote the movie, and shows a great visual style that guides the movie from start to finish without ever slowing down. The film swoops from checkpoint to checkpoint through flashy maps and pulls off a great trick that I’ll call Traffic-Vision. In Traffic-Vision, Wilee analyzes the multiple routes he can take at a stop light and sees how each can go wrong. The results range from pancaking on to multiple cars and crashing in to baby carriages. When he finally sees a pain-free option, he zips his way through the chaos like a pro.
If that sounds like a cartoon, it’s because Premium Rush is as close to one as live action can get. Wilee is nicknamed Coyote, and the Looney Tunes connections don’t end there. Michael Shannon plays a psychotic Elmer Fudd to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Bugs Bunny, and is outsmarted at every turn, frequently cursing the “wascally wabbit”. But though he resembles Elmer Fudd, Bobby Monday is more twisted of a character than any cartoon. He is a violent psycho will do anything to get the package Wilee is carrying so he can pay off a debt, and is more of a wildcard than we typically see in a movie like this.
Michael Shannon takes the startling rage from something like Take Shelter and effectively uses it for comedy here. I’m not sure why Michael Shannon decided to take a role like this that is very far outside of his wheelhouse, but I’m very glad he did. He sheds his serious persona and completely embraces the lunacy of this role, shaking his fists and bulging his eyes like cel animation come to life.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt also does great work here as Wilee. Gordon-Levitt has become one of the best actors of his generation, doing great work in multiple genres, but it’s nice that he still does small roles like this that don’t come with much acclaim. He takes a role that could easily come off as smug and instead exudes charm and likability. Hopefully this and the upcoming Looper will lead to more leading roles, because so far he’s pulled them off effortlessly.
Despite boasting a simplistic premise, Premium Rush does some interesting stuff with chronology. The main plot is done in mostly real-time, but the film frequently flashes back and sets up character’s motives that then inter-cut with scenes we’ve already watched. The technique is solid and works as a good way to relay plot information without being overly expositional. It isn’t anything new or revelatory, but is well done and fleshes out the story.
Since the film is mainly about bike-riding, that’s the one thing it needs to pull off convincingly, and it does. The camera follows riders through the city with ease, but the scenes never look fake and effects-heavy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to have done most of the bike-work himself, and anything he didn’t do is very hard to tell. For a film with a relatively low budget, Premium Rush does action that’s as big as most movies we’ve seen this summer and looks more realistic than almost all of them.
This might not seem like a movie you need to rush out and see following weeks full of major releases, but Premium Rush is worth checking out. You might want to wait and watch it at home, but this is the kind of movie that works best in the theaters when you’re fully immersed in the action. If you’ve got a free afternoon and can catch a matinee, Premium Rush will keep you entertained with impressive stunts and fun action.
Premium Rush is in theaters now in the US and on September 14th in the UK.
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