Premium Rush is not an action movie. If an audience goes into it looking for fights or standard action movie clichés, it’s likely to leave disappointed. What Premium Rush is, through and through, is a chase movie. It features a charismatic lead, a tremendous performance by a sniveling villain, and – more than anything else – an incredible amount of fun.
Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a death wish, or, at the very least, seems to. He’s forsaken law school to pursue the thrill of being a bike messenger on Manhattan’s streets where seemingly every intersection brings any number of split-second, life and death decisions. Wilee even takes this to the next level, forsaking any gears or brakes, making him faster than anyone else, but also more vulnerable. When he picks up an envelope late in his shift from a former school friend, Nima (Jamie Chung), he’s suddenly being bothered by what he thinks is a campus security man, asking for the envelope back. He refuses, and begins to make his way south toward his delivery when the security man begins pursuing him, as does an increasingly frustrated New York Police Department bicycle officer. As the security man’s identity becomes clearer through a flashback and a major discovery of Wilee’s, he decides to abandon the job, not knowing what it’s true purpose is or the reason he’s being pursued so ferociously. When he finds out, however, suddenly Wilee’s gung-ho to do it, but fate seems to have intervened against him.
Gordon-Levitt’s done plenty to endear himself to a wide variety of audiences the last few years, whether it be in quirky romantic comedies like 500 Days of Summer, neo-noir in Brick, a dramatic, yet comedic turn in 50/50 and a couple of recent mainstream successes as a part of Christopher Nolan’s increasingly large stock company in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. In Premium Rush, he tries on what might have been a Steve McQueen role had the movie been made 40 years earlier. Gordon-Levitt remains cool under the craziest of circumstances, both in terms of his love life and as his job gets more and more hazardous. Michael Shannon has also made his name in a different way the last few years, mostly taking roles in smaller films like Take Shelter. Here, as a remarkably corrupt cop having what is probably the worst day ever, Shannon allows his desperation to come out of every pore of his being, and it makes the lengths he’s willing to go to all the more believable. Usually, in an action movie, it’s the hero who’s facing the desperate situation that drives them to go above and beyond. Here, it’s the opposite. Director and co-writer David Koepp also is to be commended for not taking his film too seriously. There’s more than enough comedy, or at the very least levity, to let the audience come up for air during the more breakneck points of the action. There are also some fine supporting performances, especially Dania Ramirez as Wilee’s love interest and colleague, who helps him out even as she’s scared off by his breakneck riding style.
There are some aspects of the film that aren’t quite as strong, however. Chung’s character isn’t really developed as much as she should be, and the performance is not nearly as strong as some of the others in the film. The same goes for the story of Wilee’s rival at the delivery service, and for Ramirez’s affections, Manny (Wolé Parks). While that performance is stronger that Chung’s, the storyline seems to have come from a different, and lesser film. It might also have been fun to see some more of this seemingly insular culture within the bike messengers of New York, who anyone who’s ever even visited the city has to have a strong opinion about. Koepp shows the audience some of it, but not quite enough. Some might find Shannon’s performance over-the-top, and it probably isn’t for everyone, but it does work.
But these criticisms are like finding tiny imperfections on a perfect stretch of road. Premium Rush is a seriously good time for someone looking for a nice adrenaline rush, or even someone looking for a few laughs. Late August isn’t typically the best time for movies, as studios begin their Oscar pushes in the fall and there aren’t any more tent pole blockbusters. For an audience that’s looking for something fun on Labor Day weekend then, there’s an obvious turn to make.