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Non-Review Review: Premium Rush

This movie was seen as part of Movie Fest, which was as much of a joy this year as it was last year. If not moreso.

Although a tad over-written and a little awkward in places, Premium Rush is a diverting high concept chase thriller that actually manages to produce something just a little unique. Set within the high-octane world of New York couriers, it sees our lead character racing to make a 7pm deadline while dealing with a whole host of problems. Much like the title character, the movie is at its best when it’s moving – zig-zagging and free-wheeling at a decent enough pace that the flaws fade away. However, it runs into a bit of bother when it tries to slow things down a bit. Still, it’s an entertaining city thriller.

Wheeler dealers?

In many ways, Premium Rush plays like a rush hour horror story. I know I’m far less likely to ride any sort bike within any urban area, as the movie revels in watching its lead character duck in and out of traffic, weaving between drivers who are either unaware or indifferent to their existence. The streets are a jungle, and they are populated with inherently hostile organisms. Premium Rush is set in a world where bicycle riders, pedestrians and motorists seem perpetually in conflict, competing for vital space on the asphalt. While it’s hardly the most flattering portrayal of urban planning in action, it’s a wonderful setting for a high-speed thriller.

At an hour-and-a-half, the film breezes by like one of the messengers it follows. David Koepp seems to make a better director than a writer here, as the movie’s tight direction struggles to overcome some plotting and pacing errors. There’s always a sense of danger in the streets, as we follow Wilee on his route. Using a clever GPS graphic, we’re shown how Wilee plots his movements and the potential consequences of even the slightest miscalculation. Frequently it ends up with Wilee or somebody else splattered across the street.

Fools rush in?

Wilee and his colleagues almost seem to fly through a city populated with bigger and stronger vehicles than their own tiny bikes, and Koepp does an excellent job presenting a relatively unique angle on New York. The city has been captured countless times on film, so it’s hard to imagine a director putting their own stamp on it, but Koepp does find a way to take us on a tour of a New York that seems familiar and yet unique. There’s nowhere in Manhattan that seems off-limit to the riders, and Koepp does an excellent job conveying that sense of freedom.

While the movie soars whenever Wilee is on the bike, it struggles as it attempts to characterise the world and its inhabitants. Ever metaphor is awkwardly (and repeatedly) spelt out to the audience, as if afraid that people won’t understand what a particular action or decision says about a character. The movie even points out that Wilee’s nickname is reference to the famous Coyote. “Like the coyote?” his pursuer asks at one point. “That’s cute.”

Road Warriors…

While it’s cute to hear that Wilee rides without gears and brakes for the first time, the movie proceeds to batter us over the head with the fact and the pseudo-pop-psychology that explains it. It’s hardly the most subtle metaphor in the first place – Wilee living life without the brakes – but it doesn’t feel any more elegant when it’s repeated ad nausium. It is almost as if Koepp is afraid we might lose sight of the characters amid the mid-town action, and so over-compensates by having characters literally articulate his character beats.

In fact, it even seems like Wilee repeats his opinions of certain characters (“@$$hole” and “douchebag”) just so the audience knows how to feel about them at that particular moment. The irony is that most of this is unnecessary. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a solid enough leading actor that he can convey a listless risk-taking speed-junkie without being expressly labelled as such. It tends to happen in spurts, though – so that it doesn’t spill over too much into the actual bike riding.

Easy rider?

Michael Shannon is actually cast almost perfectly as the unsavoury character chasing Wilee’s latest delivery. Shannon has emerged as one of the best character actors working today, and he manages to take what might have been a one-note and forgettable bad guy and turn him into something that’s a great deal weirder. One of my favourite scenes has the character taking a beating he has earned, only for his attackers to go too far, prompting our villain to respond rather brutally – illustrating that he was really only taking the punishment because he chose to.

In fact, Shannon even manages to make his character’s awkward exposition work far better than it should. At one point, he’s choking a possible victim, while outlining his major character flaw. “Do you know what the department shrink says I have?” he asks. “Impulse control problems.”It’s a moment that would be incredibly awkward in the hands of a lesser actor, as the character essentially rationalises himself to the audience, but Shannon makes it a convincing character beat – as if it’s the kind of thing his nutjob would casually drop into an interrogation.

Braking up is hard to do…

Shannon carries a lot of the film, as he reacts to the seemingly impossible stunts that are beautifully choreographed by the stunt team. I’ve never seen an actor make so much out of a collection of “oh god” and “nuts” as Shannon does here, presenting a character who actually seems genuinely frustrated by the courier in the same way that we’d be bothered by a malfunctioning printer. It’s not an object that we harbour any inner anger towards, but it’s also something that could really mess up our day.

Levitt and Koepp do well to keep the movie relatively light. There’s always a sense of fun about the whole thing, even when the stakes do get quite high. There’s any number of small gags to keep the audience grinning, allowing the movie to get away with some convenient plot twists and luck coincidences in order to keep the film pushing forward. Premium Rushis a genuinely fun film, it’s light and entertaining – never really trying to be anything more substantial.

A vicious cyclist…

And, to be fair, it works on those terms. The scripting is more than a little bit clumsy, but Koepp and his cast are charming enough to allow the audience to see past that, and to go along for the ride. So to speak.

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