The second of four movies that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has scheduled for release this year, David Koepp’s Premium Rush is yet further proof that the actor is one of the most charismatic, diverse and hard-working pulling faces in the industry today. Following a sci-fi sit-com, a Gregg Araki film, a teen caper, a relationship drama, a cancer comedy, a sci-fi and a superhero movie, Premium Rush places the emerging star at the wheels of a very effective thriller.
Hired by the roommate of his on-off girlfriend Vanessa (Ramirez) to deliver an envelope to Sister Chen in Chinatown by 7pm, bicycle messenger Wilee (Gordon-Levitt – like the Coyote, he gets that a lot) punches the destination into his satnav and surreptitiously disappears into the throng of rush hour traffic. Unfortunately, he and Nima (Jamie Chung) are not the only people who know about the message, and soon Wilee is being hunted down by a bent cop (Shannon) looking to intercept the message at any cost. As his evasive cycling attracts even more attention from the authorities, Wilee must patch things up with Vanessa and call upon rival rider Manny (Wolé Parks) if he is going to make the fast-approaching deadline.
Needless to say, Gordon-Levitt is once again an absolute pleasure to watch. A kamikaze deliveryboy renowned for his daredevil cycling, Wilee is master of the bike almost as much as he is of the movie itself. The roadrunner rather than the coyote, however, he is an arrogant, free-wheeling menace to society, but one that you can’t help but root for along the way. That he makes such an impression while darting around New York City, narrowly avoiding death at almost every turn, is testament to the actor’s abilities. The rest of the cast can’t quite keep up, either on the road or off, but they try their damndest, with Shannon in particular giving it his all as the dastardly detective, complete with maniacal laugh.
While many have highlighted the unavoidable debt Koepp owes to cat and mouse cartoons (or Road Runner and Coyote, as the case may be), what Premium Rush most put me in mind of was little remembered 2004 flick Cellular. Rather than spinning the plot around a fateful phone call, however, the director — who also wrote the film, alongside John Kamp — hangs his story around a slightly different sort of mail. With only limited potential for thrills (there is only so much a bike is capable of), he nevertheless wrings extraordinary tension, humour and thrills from Wilee’s free-wheeling feats. Like a cartoon hamster in a wheel, it is this forward momentum that powers the film. Unlike his protagonist, though, Koepp is all too happy to slam on the brakes.
At times it feels almost as though you’re watching a video game movie, albeit a video-game movie that is twice as much fun as any we have so far been delivered. Replete with pre-plotted routes (shown at the start of every delivery), Game Over sequences (a sort of pre-vis predicts imagined accidents) and a plot comprised of smaller side missions (at one point Wilee’s success lies solely in his triumph at a friendly race), Premium Rush would be as at home on X-Box as it would D-Box. Where the film unfortunately falls down is during its equivalent of cut scenes, as the narrative jumps back a few hours to essentially explain the plot. Forced and unnecessary, these breaks from the action feel out of place in what is otherwise Looney Tunes Racing. (In no way a criticism.)
Exciting, endearing and deliriously entertaining, Premium Rush is just that: a high-quality rush. While it will likely feel unsubstantial next to The Dark Knight Rises, Looper and Lincoln (and it is, gleefully so), it is still a beautiful example of the more visceral thrills of mainstream cinema.