“Premium Rush” is a very silly, very slight film that is invigorated by David Koepp’s obvious fascination with how to capture the visceral thrill of being a bike messenger in modern Manhattan. It barely holds together as a narrative while you’re watching, but there are some basic pleasures to be had.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has, fate willing, a long and exciting career ahead of him. He’s comfortable with comedy, drama, romance, action, dancing, singing, and who knows what else. He seems unafraid of any subject matter, and his work with HitRECord, his art collective movement, reveals him as someone with a hunger for the pure thrill of invention. So when he says in the press notes for the film that one of the things that helped him decide to do “Premium Rush” was the thought of riding bikes in New York in the summer, I buy it. I can see how he’d want to mix it up, and there is a physical challenge inherent to a film like this that would be appealing to an actor who is as keenly aware of his body as Gordon-Levitt seems to be. Koepp has staged some remarkable bike action in and around Manhattan, and I’m not sure how much is real, how much involves stunt performers, and how much had to be created in a computer or massaged in some way digitally. I sort of don’t want to know, either, because the trick of the film is that Koepp makes it all look like he just got a camera next to Gordon-Levitt or Dania Ramirez or Wole Parks when they were hauling ass through the terrifying daytime traffic of New York City. It’s a seamless trick, and that’s a big part of what Koepp’s job was in making the movie.
Narratively, I’m less impressed with what they’ve built. Koepp is co-credited with John Kamps on the script, and it’s a chase movie with a dirty cop, played by Michael Shannon, determined to catch up with Wilee (Gordon-Levitt), a bike messenger who’s been given an envelope to deliver to Chinatown by 7:00 PM exactly. The film plays with time and linear storytelling by doubling back on itself a few times to illustrate different elements of the various forces in play that threaten to get Wilee killed. Jamie Chung plays the key role of Nima, the girl who asks for Wilee in the first place, the one who gives him the envelope. What’s in it and what the delivery means are held as reveals for later in the film, and part of my problem with the movie is that it’s fairly heavy subject matter for what is essentially a popcorn piffle. Everything else about the movie is played light as air, and it’s agreeable enough. Michael Shannon is typically deranged here, and it’s interesting how actors who can do really beautiful nuanced work in indie films and personal projects, and who almost play as self-parody when they show up in big studio entertainment like this. More than anything, I’m curious to see what Zack Snyder does with him in “Man Of Steel,” because if there’s ever been a role that lends itself to chewing scenery, it would be General Zod.
The film is at its best when it’s playful, like with a running subplot about a bicycle cop chasing Wilee, or when there’s a race through the park that Manny (Parks) insists on. I’m going to make a reference here that about nine people will get, but I thought this would make a fun double feature with “BMX Bandits,” and it’s like a bigger slicker version of how that film enjoyed staging bike gags and stunts. There’s a sort of “Wilee Spider Sense” thing that Koepp does a few times in the film where Wilee looks at an approaching intersection and sees each of his options for getting through it play out, with several of them resulting in violent injury or death for him. It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s very broad, and it’s just Koepp having fun with the audience. I don’t think that’s something you can totally dismiss, either. Not everyone has the right touch to do something that is light and simple and where the cast is invested in the right way. Ramirez is adorable, and she holds her own in the riding department, establishing herself as a really fun match for Gordon-Levitt, who has a touch of the charisma of a Bugs Bunny, like that smile of his forgives any mayhem or mischief. He shows off movie star chops here, even if it feels like he’s running in low gear.
This is a perfect example of a film that people will see on cable later and realize “Oh, that was fun,” so whether or not it finds an audience this weekend, I think it’s going to have a shelf life. It’s goofy, but that’s on purpose, and I can’t help but be charmed by the effort.
“Premium Rush” is in theaters now.