In the CGI-infected action movie world you routinely experience at the multiplex, “Premium Rush,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is that rare, old-school exception. The stunts are all very real, making this one of the scariest thrillers in memory.
Nothing is fake: Actors or even in cases where it might be stunt doubles are really weaving in and out of heavy Manhattan traffic fully exposed on mere bicycles. Cabs, trucks, disgruntled pedestrians and large objects loom in their paths, causing wild deviations by the cyclists.
Sure, streets are blocked and stunt drivers steer every car. But those near misses are still near misses and your heart is racing for nearly the entire 91 minutes. Someone could really get hurt here and, apparently, did.
Director and co-writer David Koepp has designed his movie around these X-Games stunts. The story concerns a dare-devil bicycle messenger, who maneuvers through streets, sidewalks, parks and blind alleys as if the delivery were a matter of life or death.
You spot these biking messengers everywhere in Manhattan and don’t give it a second thought until one whizzes by you with only inches to spare. They’re risking their lives but — it suddenly occurs to you — yours as well.
The story naturally involves an instance where a delivery really is a matter of life or death. To get there, Koepp and fellow writer John Kamps resort to contrivances and coincidences. Aware of this, they play much of this for comedy including a bizarre out-of-control villain and sketchy character dynamics that bear little scrutiny.
Even the name of the hero, Gordon-Levitt’s possibly suicidal messenger Wilee, is meant to remind you of the iconic Warner Bros. chase-and-evade cartoon series that pitted the Road Runner against Wile E. Coyote.
Wilee rides a “fixie,” an extremely lightweight, single-gear bike with no brakes. You got that — no brakes. (Does anyone actually do this?) He can’t stop if he wants to. Which he doesn’t.
One afternoon he is handed an assignment to go uptown to pick up and then deliver a “package” downtown in Chinatown. Now understand, the package is prepared by a young woman (Jamie Chung), who just happens to be the roommate of Wilee’s sometimes girlfriend and fellow messenger, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez).
Also understand that another fellow bike messenger, Manny (Wolé Parks), thinks he’s in competition with Wilee for Vanessa’s affections. He really doesn’t stand a chance but, never mind, he thinks he does.
Intent on intercepting this “package” is crazed NYPD detective Bobby Monday whose life hangs in the balance. Monday is played by one of cinema’s finest character actors, Michael Shannon. So he has earned a scenery-chewing role and, boy, does he deliver.
Monday is your worst cop nightmare with debts up to his hairline from playing Pai Gow, a Chinese gambling game with tiles, and an inability to control emotions. He’s a cop who believes law-breaking is part of the job description.
So here’s how the movie unfolds: It takes place in a single day — actually mid-afternoon to early evening — but switches back and forth in time frames to keep you guessing what’s really happening. Pop-up models of Manhattan show you the routes everyone is taking on his or her bikes. Finally, an ingenious ploy by the filmmakers allows you to see the race from Wilee’s point of view.
As Wilee approaches a dangerous intersection without brakes and seemingly no way to avoid a potentially fatal crash, the film deconstructs his thought process. You see three possible scenarios play out — right means disaster, straight ahead same thing but, ah — left opens a tiny crack through cars and pedestrians that may save him.
All three play out before he takes the last option. Only the final time this happens in the movie … well, this is what’s called a plot spoiler.
“Premium Rush” may be one of the coolest dumb movies ever. Don’t pay any attention to the plot. This would be like going to a Hong Kong gangster movie and expecting it to make sense. The story is a joke, which even the filmmakers realize so they let Shannon and the cast go for laughs.
Characters? Wilee is supposedly a law school drop-out who can’t stand the thought of making oodles of money and wearing nice clothes instead of courting death daily for a take-home of about $100. (Please don’t ask how he can afford to live in New York.)
Gordon-Levitt, currently dodging questions about his possible role in the next Batman movie like his character here dodges vehicles, has little opportunity to deliver anything like a nuanced performance. He’s too busy with his athletic biking. But he holds your attention and makes his plight compelling.
Only Shannon among the rest of the cast makes much of an impression. Watching him disintegrate on screen is pure pleasure. Everyone else is working overtime to avoid potholes.
If one brief shot shown during the end credit roll typifies a day on the job for Gordon-Levitt and his cycling cast, accidents did happen on the set and they weren’t pretty. (Someone off camera is heard urging Gordon-Levitt to get to a hospital.)
Kudos to the film’s messenger-consultant Austin Horse, who also served as one of the lead’s stunt double; Christopher Place, a stuntman who plays the comical character of a bike cop who fruitlessly pursues Wilee; and the first and second units who captured the action on the tricky streets of Manhattan.
And whoever in the Mayor’s office that got all those streets blocked!
Opens: August 24 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: A Pariah production
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Jamie Chung, Wolé Parks, Aasif Mandvi, Henry O, Christopher Place
Director: David Koepp
Screenwriters: David Koepp & John Kamps
Producer: Gavin Polone
Executive producer: Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda
Director of photography: Mitchell Amundsen
Production designer: Thérèse DePrez
Music: David Sardy
Costume designer: Luca Mosca
Editors: Jill Savitt, Derek Ambrosi
PG-13 rating, 91 minutes