Pushing pedal to the mettle and its breezily thin, goofy story to the breaking point, Premium Rush provides just about all the late summer air-conditioned relief you could hope for. It’s buoyant dumb-fun, a ticking-clock thriller about a New York bicycle messenger who has to get from here to there without being taken out. Stuffed with zingers and zippy stunts, it comes with pretty young things of all hues and hair types — few prettier than its lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt — and start-to-finish clever special effects, none more clever or special than Michael Shannon. If you want to see a political undertow in its urban band of multicultural renegades, there’s that for the taking too.
Shannon enters, teeth gnashing, eyes bulging, to play Bobby Monday, a bad, bad New York detective. Monday has a gambling problem and, as he freely confesses, issues with impulse control. He’s also a big-time loser who’s deep in dangerous debt. His deliverance may come in a mysterious chit that will lead to a payout that, in turn, involves a money-lending outfit; a visiting student, Nima (Jamie Chung); some cuteness back in mainland China; and other easily forgotten particulars. None of these story bits matter much because it’s the telling and not the tale — along with Gordon-Levitt’s innate appeal, Shannon’s volatile menace that makes the movie pop.
The chit ends up with Wilee (Gordon-Levitt), who has to race it from uptown to down while biking a gauntlet of darting cars, buses, trucks and pedestrians, and dodging Bobby Monday and other obstacles, including the obligatory girl trouble, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez).
Like some fixie devotees, Wilee also rides without brakes, a choice that’s branded by other characters in the movie as reckless and maybe evidence of a death wish. But it also registers on screen — as when Wilee, like a groovier or at least thinner Fred Flintstone, skids to a stop using only his skill and sneakered feet — as the ultimate in authenticity. To a degree, the director, David Koepp, has tried to mirror the DIY ethos of fixed-gear devotees by using real rather than digital stunts and effects. The movie tries hard to look real.
An embrace of the real has become a recurrent element in contemporary action cinema, with digitally created and enhanced spectacle being deployed alongside actual bodies moving through, bouncing off and slamming into the physical world. These practical stunts function somewhat like collecting vinyl records, taking up sewing, baking your own bread, handwriting thank you notes and stripping down your Schwinn in that they’re reassuring totems of a reality that at times seems to be disappearing in the slipstream of digital ones and zeros. When Wilee pumps up a steep Central Park hill, Gordon-Levitt’s straining muscles, pouring sweat and heavy breathing function as visible evidence of both the actor’s hard physical labour and his actual (not avatar) being.
Those screaming muscles, of course, also show that Wilee has the guts and lasting power to take the movie to its inevitable end. (Why he doesn’t just hitch a ride on the subway, though, is a mystery.) Koepp, with help from the bike-nation cavalry, gets him there easily. Working from a loose, casually funny script he wrote with John Kamps, Koepp has found the right balance here between genre seriousness and un-self-seriousness to turn the disposable into the enjoyable.
Premium Rush (u/a)
Director: David Koepp
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Jamie Chung
Running time: 91 minutes