Movie Review: Premium Rush
By Matthew Huntley
September 4, 2012
Premium Rush is about a wiseacre bike messenger in New York City who suddenly finds himself in a race against time, and even more than you’d expect for a biker messenger working in New York City. He must go from uptown to downtown to deliver a sealed envelope, all while dodging a psychopathic cop out to get him, although not in the most lawful of ways. Missing his deadline could cost the messenger his job; attempting to make it could cost him his life.
Yes, the movie is as goofy as it sounds. Its premise is goofy; its characters are goofy; and its ending reaches a certifiably new level of goofiness. That’s not to say it isn’t amusing at times, but it’s so scrambled, ridiculous and over-the-top that it’s hard to take any of it seriously, even if it’s meant to be an exercise in all of these qualities. If it had also managed to be entertaining, it would have been one thing, but I found it too dizzying and, frankly, dumb, to really get behind.
The hero’s name is Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Columbia Law School dropout who’s taken up bike messaging for a living. He’s bright, cocky and a bit of a rabble-rouser. Despite his potential to be a good lawyer, Wilee shudders at the idea of wearing a suit and sitting in an office all day. He brags to his now ex-girlfriend and fellow bike messenger, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), that they get paid to ride all day. What could be better, he asks. Sure, the pay is lousy, but they get to be outside and move around, and the sense of danger keeps them on their toes. Wilee has gotten so good at biking, in fact, that he’s developed sort of a pre-cognition for choosing the right paths in order to circumvent people, cars, traffic lights and medians that would otherwise cause him to crash or lose momentum as he races down the big bad streets of New York City. He evaluates his options and chooses whatever route won’t cause him to spill. Most of the time his instincts are right.
One crazy afternoon, Wilee is asked to deliver a sealed envelope from one his fellow students, an anxious-looking Chinese girl named Nima (Jamie Chung), to Chinatown by 7 p.m. Looking to intercept the package is Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a crooked cop with a gambling problem. Monday’s addiction has gotten him into some serious trouble with an impatient loan shark and apparently whatever Nima has handed over to Wilee will solve all his problems.
What could be in the envelope that’s so valuable to two very different people and that Wilee is willing to risk his life over? I won’t reveal its contents, but know that it’s not nearly as interesting as it could have been. I know - some viewers and critics will say it doesn’t even matter what’s in the envelope, that it’s merely the McGuffin driving the plot and the cross-city battle between Wilee and Monday. Normally I would agree, but that’s only if the chase scenes, which make up the bulk of the runtime, made the movie worth our while, but unfortunately they’re underwhelming and redundant, so I was looking to the envelope to hold my attention.
Scene after scene finds Monday chasing Wilee around town, with Wilee on his one-speed and Monday in his car and neither one caring too much about how close they come to getting in an accident. In reality, all Wilee has to do is make a few sharp turns, head down a some alleys and never look back as Monday would inevitably get stuck in traffic. But if it was that simple, I suppose there would be no movie, so we allow it its premise. Thickening the situation is a stubborn bike cop (Christopher Place) who’s desperate to teach Wilee a lesson or two about obeying traffic laws.
I will say the stunt and camera work is impressive, and I’m sure it took a lot of precision timing, choreography and special effects to make it seem like Wilee and the other bikers were at risk of getting hit and run over. The first few times we them in action, we do clench up. But after that, the movie more or less shows us the same scene over and over again and it seemed to be running, or biking, around in circles. Despite being only 90 minutes and having a fast pace, it dawdled. Maybe it’s because we’re forced to re-watch the same events, only from different perspectives; or maybe it’s because the plot is inherently uninteresting and we don’t care about the package or the characters’ connections to it; or maybe it’s because the chase scenes lose their luster too early on. Regardless, when both the McGuffin and its surrounding elements fail to raise our interests, there’s not much left to keep us interested.
For what it’s worth, the performances are zippy and enthusiastic, and the premise might have worked had the filmmakers taken it more seriously. I’m reminded of other high-concept thrillers like Cellular and Into the Blue, which also had goofy premises, but the difference is the filmmakers didn’t seem them that way. These movies were unexpectedly bold and by the time they approached their climaxes, we eagerly awaited how they were going to end. With Premium Rush, we’re less concerned about how and more concerned about when.