“I like to ride. Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.”
So says actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the first five minutes of his new film Premium Rush, an end-of-summer thriller that takes audiences on a wild goose chase through New York City.
Filled with fast-paced editing, quirky one-liners and charming performances from Gordon-Levitt and co-star Michael Shannon, the film provides a mindless but amusing addition to the torrent of action movies usually released during late summer. But with heavily-advertised films such as The Expendables 2 and The Bourne Legacy raking in box office revenue, Premium Rush’s youthful style is easily lost among more blockbuster action flicks.
Similar to Kevin Bacon’s 1986 film Quicksilver, Premium Rush follows protagonist “Wilee” — named after the infamous Wile E. Coyote — who works as an adrenaline-seeking bike messenger in New York City. Wilee and his fellow bikemates Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) and Manny (Wolé Parks) whiz through downtown Manhattan traffic on tricked-out bikes, picking up packages, performing tricks and dodging the mundanity of post-collegiate life as they pride themselves on handling deliveries too time-sensitive for the likes of FedEx and UPS. But when Wilee accepts a job from the secretive Nyma (Jamie Chung), a simple delivery puts him smack dab in the middle of a sinister plot between corrupt police officer Robert Monday (Shannon) and a Chinese gambling organization.
Premium Rush, though problematic, works because of its raw, rebellious attitude. Childhood fans of shows like Nickelodeon’s 1999 Rocket Power will appreciate the way spry bikers flaunt their stunts with athletic ease and take painful crashes with quick grimaces before hopping right back up again. The bikers often engage in playful if poorly-written banter through their wired headphones as they bob and weave through New York traffic. The gang demonstrates a unified front against authority as they tease one another and tear up the streets with bike races. These tough characters get hurt, throw insults in one another’s faces and consistently deliver a series of corny one-liners like “This is the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on.” All in all, their bohemian lifestyle seems an amusing alternative to a career in corporate America — a non-conformist theme that resonates throughout the film.
Premium Rush also makes use of superb editing. In addition to splicing together a series of well-choreographed stunts, dollied shots and unusual camera angles, the film relies on modern technology to put audiences directly in Wilee’s daredevil mind. Because Wilee prides himself on riding without brakes, he relies on his uncanny knack for planning escape routes to get him out of even the most hopeless traffic jams.
Instead of simply dangling jaw-dropping stunts in front of the audience, the filmmakers use heavy graphics to demonstrate Wilee’s thought process. A slow zoom into Gordon-Levitt’s blue-gray eyes brings audiences into Wilee’s imagination where, through a series of computerized arrows and digitized figures, the hero figures out a way to get to his drop-off spot without harming himself and others. This technique also adds a bit of comedy into the film as Wilee imagines himself slamming into the window of a taxi, running into squealing women with children and knocking a pedestrian under an oncoming UPS truck.
At the center of these cinematic techniques is the film’s fascination with youthful rebellion. One scene between Gordon-Levitt and Shannon particularly reveals Premium Rush’s emphasis on dismissing authority. While an injured Wilee rides in an ambulance under the watchful gaze of the villainous Monday, he listens to the corrupt police officer complain about the younger generation’s filthy habit of casually using the phrases “douchebag” and “suck it.”
Of course, when Wilee triumphs over Monday, his winning line is “Suck it, douchebag.”
The rest of the film carries on this same attitude. A bus full of school children gleefully points one of Wilee’s uniformed pursuers in the wrong direction. None of the bikers seem to care for the police’s protests to halt or slow down. Most of the cops pursuing Wilee seem particularly inept, struggling to keep up with the clever and physically fit hero.
At its core, Premium Rush advocates sticking it to the man.
There are, however, a few holes in the film’s logic.
As the film uses an achronological narrative structure to explain the motivations of different characters, time becomes a bit unbelievable. Technically, Premium Rush takes place over the course of three hours, but as the film jumps rewinds the clock to give backstory, time becomes almost illogical. The bikers seem to be everywhere at once, sometimes managing to jump dozens of New York blocks in a matter of minutes.
The film’s resolution, which takes place over several action sequences, also ignores time. In the final 45 minutes of the film, Wilee is hit by a car, blacks out, rides through downtown on an ambulance, regains his bike, defeats Monday and delivers his package in what is supposed to be 27 minutes — an element of the plot that is unbelievable, particularly considering the heavy involvement of New York rush hour traffic in the film.
Premium Rush also blunders through Wilee’s most vulnerable scenes. At one point when Wilee needs medical assistance for an injury, the audience overhears a medic telling Monday that he has a couple of bruised ribs that require proper care. Yet, in the next scene, Wilee is on his bike and doing tricks again, jumping over cars and riding on elevated platforms to get out of a warehouse surrounded by policemen. Then, just a short while later, Wilee is groaning and clutching his ribcage as he glides down the street, hindered by injuries that seemed nonexistent just a few moments before.
Though it’s not the best thriller of the year, Premium Rush is a grade above the typical action film and provides a fun ending to the summer.