David Koepp’s Premium Rush is a generic, low-ambition summer action flick with a goofy and unique central conceit. We are all too familiar with this story – a young, detached rouge must take an important package from point A to point B while evading villainous pursuit – but we have not, the film assumes, seen it executed on bikes. Fighting crime with the power of pedals? Genius!
Sarcasm aside, the film really does deserve credit for trying something new, even as all non-cycling-related elements reek of rehash. I have never seen a film set in the world of New York City bike messengers, and if nothing else, Premium Rush proves one can stage plenty of decent set pieces by pitting a high-speed bike against congested traffic conditions.
It also proves ‘bike-fu’ – or whatever we wish to call Joseph Gordon Levitt’s cycling superheroics – is impossible to take seriously. Pedaling wildly to deliver packages seems silly in and of itself, but doing the same to fight bad guys is downright ludicrous, and Koepp wisely emphasizes the goofier aspects of the concept. A bevy of fun stylistic flourishes show how Levitt’s character, a cycling master, fights his way through traffic without ever slowing down; pullouts to a map of New York give a visually interesting sense of space; and camerawork that smoothly weaves and bobs down city streets compellingly pulls us into the action. Koepp and his cast know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to the bikes, and as long as the pedals keep moving, there’s a certain amount of fun to be had.
It’s when the film slows down for story or character work that things become tedious. Levitt plays Wilee, an adrenaline junky bike messenger who has ninety minutes to deliver an envelope from a friend at Columbia University to Chinatown. It’s a simple assignment, but a dirty cop played by Michael Shannon wants the envelope for himself, and is hell bent on stealing it from Wilee. It is, as noted before, a generic set-up, one we’ve each seen plenty of times before, and even with the unique aesthetics and biking mayhem, there’s a sense of familiarity Premium Rush never manages to shake.
The issue would not amount to much, I think, if Koepp and co-writer John Kamps better understood how these stories operate on a structural level. The core trick is to prevent the audience from ever realizing how insignificant the main character truly is. When forces far outside the protagonist’s control are gunning for a package he had no role in creating, the character is always going to be a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of things. If you make this clear to the audience, they are going to lose interest fast; but if the scope is kept hidden and the protagonist gradually uncovers the conspiracy on his own, his journey feels a lot more impactful.
Yet the film plays its hand upfront, breaking Wilee’s point-of view for an extremely long flashback to the villain’s backstory. The scene may be narratively salient, but it creates too large a discrepancy between what Wilee and the audience understand. By the time Koepp cuts back, Wilee is practically a stranger, because we now know infinitely more than he will at any point in the film’s runtime. From a narrative standpoint, that renders him useless. All he has left to do is move the package across town, and with additional flashbacks continuing to interrupt his trek, that role is steadily diluted. Even with the enormously talented Levitt in the part, it’s difficult to become invested in someone who is, by the story’s very nature, insignificant to the central plot mechanics.
It doesn’t help that the story’s deeper reveals are uniformly uninteresting, too convoluted and, in some cases, downright stupid to care about. Koepp may understand a lighthearted tone is required for the action, but he doesn’t bring that over to the plot; the resulting tonal inconsistencies are jarring.
The characters are all simple types, most of them played by decent actors doing third-rate, disengaged work. Levitt is an obvious exception, even if he is shackled by the film’s structure. He takes a paper-thin part and makes it fun, bringing every ounce of his trademark earnest charm to the role. As always, Levitt is a joy to watch.
I wish I could say the same for Michael Shannon. As evidenced by stunning turns in Take Shelter and Boardwalk Empire, the man is a tremendous actor, one who can achieve incredible levels of intimidation and humanity. He is not effective at playing comedy, though, and while his character here certainly isn’t comic relief, he is supposed to be broad and silly, in line with the rest of the film’s tone and characters. It’s something Shannon cannot pull off, resorting to increasingly intense levels of ham as the character grows desperate. The performance isn’t awful, but it is awkward and uncomfortable, and a more suitable actor could have improved the film immeasurably.
For all its attempts at originality, Premium Rush is, at its heart, generic, and even if Koepp finds impressive ways to film and choreograph cycling, he cannot execute the generic story well. I see no compelling reason to recommend the film, but I also have no overly harsh things to say about it. The film achieves supreme mediocrity; nothing more, nothing less.