Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way since his supporting actor days in childhood films like Beethoven and Angels in the Outfield – not to mention his breakout hit, alongside fellow Bat-franchise veteran, Heath Ledger, with 10 Things I Hate About You. After memorable roles in a variety of critically-acclaimed films like The Lookout, 500 Days of Summer, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises, Levitt has carved out a robust and well-respected spot in Hollywood.
However, despite subtle comedic timing and sharp dramatic chops, the actor is set to test his charisma as an action lead in writer/director David Koepp’s bike messenger thriller Premium Rush. Koepp also has a robust filmography, with writing credits on Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, but a mixed turnout when in the director’s chair (Stir of Echoes, Secret Window and Ghost Town, among others). Does Premium Rush provide enough fun character moments and heart-pounding action to give the actor and director an opportunity to shine?
Unfortunately, even though Levitt delivers a solid performance and Koepp dishes out plenty of jaw-dropping bike tricks, the core storyline and overall execution of Premium Rush are both exceptionally clunky. The bike messenger setup, paired with the New York City backdrop, definitely provides some of the film’s best moments – especially with Levitt at center stage – but nearly every other element is underwhelming; from the film’s thin (albeit amusing) villain played by Man of Steel‘s Michael Shannon, to forgettable supporting players and a number of cheesy assertions about camaraderie among bike messengers.
The primary story is believable enough – even if the “style over substance” approach of the filmmaking somewhat undercuts a few of the more serious moments. Levitt plays Wilee (“The Coyote Man”), a Columbia law school graduate who races around Manhattan on a steel frame, fixed gear, bicycle with no brakes – weaving in and out of traffic as he moves sensitive packages from point A to point B. After a fellow bike courier, Manny (Wolé Parks), steals Wilee’s last package of the day out from under him, The Coyote is forced to take a different parcel all the way from 116th Street down to China Town… during premium rush (hour). Unknown to him at the time, the letter he’s carrying is being chased by a mysterious and impulsive man in a suit named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who will seemingly stop at nothing to acquire Wilee’s fare – including threaten the life of Wilee’s girlfriend / fellow bike courier, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). Once Wilee discovers what’s actually at stake, he becomes locked in a life or death situation – which, to a thrill-seeking peddle-junky, might just be the ultimate rush.
Just as the narrative will (literally) pull viewers up and down Broadway in an exhausting will he/won’t he storyline, the tone of the film moves recklessly between manipulative emotional beats, eye-rolling lines of dialogue, and some pretty disturbing fits of violence. The sharp changes in tone are further complicated by a Vantage Point-like flashback mechanic of winding back the clock to show a connected scene from the perspective of an entirely different (non-Wilee) character. It’s a necessary evil here, since Wilee’s portion of the narrative doesn’t really begin until 5:00pm – whereas three other plot arcs begin earlier in the day. However, just because it’s necessary doesn’t mean that the flashbacks create a successful flow or tone to the overall proceedings.
That said, the herky–jerky approach to the Premium Rush story succeeds in keeping the suspense up – offering plenty of tense encounters as well as cathartic/intentionally cheesy one-liners and traded barbs. Levitt is playing a variation of his Inception character, Arthur – if Arthur was a thrill-seeking bicycle savant. Wilee is witty, intense, and takes his job very seriously – even if he allows himself the opportunity to show off once in awhile. Levitt’s performance this round won’t cement him as the next blockbuster action man – though his courageous skinny guy routine is much better than his contemporaries (like Shia LaBeouf) and won’t stall the actor’s rising star.
Shannon is equally enjoyable as antagonist Bobby Monday, a smart balance of Premium Rush quirk and savage violence. He’s provided with a competent enough foundation – which is quickly thrown out the window as he competes with Levitt in a cat and mouse chase. By the time the credits roll, there are so many elements in play that it might be hard for some viewers to grasp exactly how they were supposed to feel about Monday, as well as what role his actions (not to mention Wilee’s self-abusive retorts) had in the larger proceedings.
Most of the other characters are pushed aside (Manny and Vanessa especially), in favor of the film’s carefully crafted (and very cool) bicycle stunt set pieces, which see the couriers (and NYPD bike cops) hopping staircases, threading moving greyhound buses, sliding under stopped construction vehicles, and crashing over Taxi hoods, car doors, hand rails, and other such obstacles. Koepp revels in the urban jungle of New York City by setting up the treacherous nature of courier work early on, dropping in some insider know-how, and gifting Levitt with one of the film’s best inventions – a freeze motion intuition that allows viewers to experience Wilee’s split-second decision process when faced with life-threatening obstacles in his way. Go right and knock over a pedestrian who will then get run over by speeding car; go left and crash into a baby stroller full speed; go straight and weave past a stopped taxi to clearer road ahead. Straight. The trick pulls double duty, succeeding in both training the audience for potential hazards later on, as well as providing some much needed laughs as Levitt topples end over end without actual consequence.
By wholeheartedly embracing the fast-paced courier world, Koepp employs a number of style-over-substance choices that can muddle the tone of the film, but do payoff in the long run – helping Premium Rush differentiate itself from similar thriller movies. Ultimately, the main story beats will be extremely familiar to regular moviegoers, but the fixed-gear, no brakes, bike messenger covering will likely be enough to make the experience somewhat fresh and memorable. The twists and turns (of the story) are easy to see coming, but a few solid performances and some eye-popping practical bike stunt work should provide interested viewers with a middle-of-the road rush that’s a bit short of “premium.”
If you’re still on the fence about Premium Rush, check out the trailer below:
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.
Premium Rush is Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action sequences and language. Now playing in theaters.