Most casual cyclists and weekend hobbyists haven’t heard of fixed gear bikes, nor pay them any kind of interest. However, for more heavily involved bike communities, such as in Portland, Oregon, they’re something of a phenomenon. Consisting of one gear, there are no shifters or brakes, and the bike is incapable of coasting – the pedals are always turning. Tricksters have even made a life out of such bikes, coasting in and out of traffic, surfing on the backs of cars, and coming to quick stops by snapping the pedals to a stop with their feet. In his most recent effort, Director David Koepp has decided to make a movie out of this phenomenon and dub the proceedings “Premium Rush.”
The story of “Premium Rush” is fairly straightforward. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Brick,” “Inception”) plays Wilee, an ace bike messenger working in Manhattan who’s the best at what he does – namely making deliveries faster than anybody else. “There’s e-mail, fax, text,” he narrates. “But when it has to be there in person, they call us.” There’s honestly not a lot of back story to the movie – there’s something of a love affair gone awry between Willie and a fellow messenger (Dania Rimeriez, “American Reunion,” TV’s “Heroes”), but this is ill defined, in favor of bike chases through the city and breakneck action.
The first chase occurs not far into the movie after Wilee picks up a package from an old Columbia University classmate, which must arrive at a particular destination in Chinatown by 7:30 that night. However, before he even starts off, he is accosted by a man posing himself as the Dean of Students, who demands the envelope back. However, Wilee’s company is into security, and he’s not about to give it over to the guy just because he said so. A couple of death threats later, and the man is chasing Wilee through Midtown with his car vs. Wilee’s bike. Nothing like a fair chase, huh?
However, we soon see that Wilee is at the advantage, skirting in and out of traffic the pursuer (who we later learn to be Detective Bill Monday of the NYPD, who is in over his head in gambling debt and needs the envelope for a less than honest purpose) simply cannot go and evades him multiple times. Thus sets up a series of events (Wilee evading Monday and, later, a NYPD bike cop who chases him for causing an accident while fleeing Monday) that propel the action forward for the rest of the film.
What “Premium Rush” has going for it is, honestly, really good stunt scenes, particularly during these death-defying chases. The messengers each have a GPS that gives them multiple routes to each destination. Following this, the filmmakers set up a visual, on-the-go GPS that each rider seems to have in their brain to likewise avoid accidents. Each time Wilee is about to be smashed by a car, he sees every route he could take to avoid mishap in the blink of an eye, narrowly avoiding death many times. Almost comic-booky, as Spider-man fans can attest, it makes for an interesting way to show how quickly the bikers can think on their feet. And, as Wilee once learns the hard way, there’s not always a way out.
The movie also paints New York in a very unique way. The messengers see it at street level, not as passive guests in ubiquitous taxis but as active participants on the street. Most of the stunts are believable, and even the ones that aren’t are just plain fun to watch. One bike chase between Wilee and fellow messenger Manny (Wolé Parks, “Gossip Girl”) has Wilee dismounting his bike and skating under a huge truck in an almost Jet Li or Jackie Chan-esque fashion).
Where the movie suffers, however, is from a disjointed pacing and false advertising. Those who remember the trailer remember a film that pitted Wilee running for his life against an unknown foe, almost in an “Eagle-Eye” or “Pelican Brief” like scenario. Regrettably, “Premium Rush” is not this intense. Moody is a weak villain at best, a gambling loser and shady cop whose motivations for his chase of Wilee rest more on a lack of good decisions than any desire to do him harm.
Additionally, Moody slips in and out of the villain role too often to solidify him as a formidable adversary. One minute he’s doing something heinous, the next minute he’s getting beat up, and the next he’s cracking a joke. Not to do a disservice to Michael Shannon, who plays him rather well; it’s a simple case of a poorly written character, as if the mere premise of a bicycle chase through Manhattan was unique enough to satisfy the suspense angle without writing a truly believable foe.
Last but not least, while not a major concern, Koepp’s decision to tell the story by flashbacks between the present and earlier events of the day, while good-intentioned, break up the action often in all the wrong spots, leaving us wanting more while pulling us back in time.
At the end of the day, however, all is not lost. “Premium Rush” may be just that: a high-octane action movie with a bunch of stunts, decent acting, and something that loosely resembles a plot. It’s not as action packed as “Die Hard,” and its’ chases aren’t as dramatic as in “Gone in 60 Seconds”- but it isn’t without merit. While the script may be subpar, “Premium Rush” suceeds for the best reason of all – it delivers. It delivers action, suspense, laughs and good, believable stunts. And in a world of throw-a-way films and big-budget flops, its ultimate success may rest in it’s unique premise and for the fact that it really does try.
– by Mark Ziobro