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Premium Rush: The Bike Messenger as Action Hero?

A weak plot and silly villain detract from inventive action and a reliable Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

by
John Boot

Bio

August 24, 2012 - 5:00 am

The new thriller Premium Rush isn’t a great movie, and its story has more than a few bumps, but it has one thing going for it: It’s a charged-up, full-on, Red-Bull-chugging sample of what life is like for a New York City bike messenger. These are the fearless souls who make FedEx look like the Pony Express.

The messenger is played by one of today’s more capable young actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (a favorite director Christopher Nolan featured in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises). Gordon-Levitt, who prepared for the role so extensively he crashed into a cab and gashed his arm (an accident referred to in a blooper clip after the credits roll) races through the movie as Wilee (named for Wile E. Coyote), a pumped-up Ivy Leaguer who could have been a lawyer but chose the life of adrenaline junkie instead. He’s got girl problems (sexy Vanessa, played by Dania Ramirez, is also pursued by fellow messenger Manny, played by Wolé Parks), he’s got occupational problems (the best parts of Premium Rush are when he’s mentally mapping out a path through the labyrinth of cars, trucks, buses, and pedestrians), and now he’s got a problem with an extra-special package.

The package (really just an envelope) has to be taken from Columbia University’s campus to some questionable characters in Chinatown within an hour and a half, but after picking it up, Wilee finds himself menaced by a guy (Michael Shannon) who claims he’s the head of campus security and demands to be given the envelope. It turns out Shannon’s character is really a cop, Bobby Monday, who owes some Chinatown underworld thugs a lot of money in gambling debts. And the envelope Wilee carries? It’s a kind of deposit slip for an underground Chinese bank with a value of $50,000.

All of the coincidences in the screenplay are a little hard to take, and characters behave in strangely nonsensical ways. For instance, Wilee stops in a police station to report he’s being harassed by the guy he thinks is a university security official, even though it seems clear that simply waiting for a cop to speak to and filling out paperwork could easily kill the entire hour and a half he needs to deliver the envelope. This police station not only turns out to be Monday’s station house, but the villain himself walks in five minutes later.

So the direction by David Koepp (who also wrote the screenplay with John Kamps) doesn’t bother too much with anything but action, but there is plenty of it. Wilee keeps one step ahead of the pursuing cop by rocketing against traffic down one-way streets, riding his bike into little shops that he knows have exits to alleyways out back, and making nervy decisions to swerve through obstacles in everyday Manhattan traffic. In one of the better scenes, he manages to use a stolen mountain bike to escape a desolate tow yard by riding it over the roofs and hoods of all the cars the city stores there. A guy on a bike is such a small target that he can slip through almost any tight space, and the more the cops chase Wilee the more he humiliates their lumbering ways. Gordon-Levitt’s character is misnamed, though: He’s more like the Road Runner, or like Peter Rabbit forever foiling Mr. MacGregor.

Gordon-Levitt’s sincere performance as this likable underdog, however, is a total mismatch with that of Shannon, who laughs like Jack Nicholson’s Joker and seems to think he’s in a campy movie about an inept madman. Never for a moment does he seem sinister or menacing; instead, he’s just a big goofball who has no chance against his zippy little prey. And whereas it’s not hard to believe a cop might rack up a few gambling debts, Monday’s other behavior (like killing someone in broad daylight in front of witnesses, and with no hope of backup from fellow cops) is far beyond the pale. Monday isn’t so much despicable as he is absurd.

The plot of Premium Rush holds up poorly, but at least it has youthful spirit, like an X-Games splashed all over the big screen. It’s not hard to picture teens coming out of it jazzed on danger and thinking, “Bike messengering is where it’s at!” the way kids of another generation wanted to be cowboys or astronauts or soldiers. I guess that tells you a lot about where America is today: In a scene set in a bar, messengers sit around and swap tales about all of the trash barrels they jumped over on their bikes, or all the cab doors they smashed into. Heroics have been defined down, all the way to mere thrill-seeking.

***

More current movie reviews from John Boot at PJ Lifestyle:

The Wall-to-Wall Macho Violence of The Expendables 2

Matt Who? Renner Proves a Winner in The Bourne Legacy

The 5 Most Politically Incorrect Ideas Smuggled into The Dark Knight Rises

Batman, One Percenter?

Do We Really Need Another Spider-Man Movie?

John Boot is the pen name of a conservative writer operating under deep cover in the liberal media.
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