In an age where green screen is over-utilized, and costs are managed by shooting in the Midwest, Canada, or even Eastern Europe, there’s something classy and maybe even downright quaint about a film entirely set on the streets of New York City. Permit restrictions have long ended the days of most low-budget, scrappy productions making the city their home, so it’s probably worth acknowledging that the producers of “Premium Rush” spent a good amount of cash securing the locations for their pavement-pounding chase thriller. Regardless, there’s something refreshingly low-fi about rubber against the pavement of the world’s greatest city, and for a moment you forget that “Premium Rush” is a big, dumb, studio star attraction.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Wiley, a madman behind the handlebars who lives a high-octane existence as the city’s most skilled bike messenger. Riding without breaks is this film’s equivalent to jumping without a parachute, one of many implausibly romanticized elements of riding in the city that the film pursues. At the start of the movie, he’s feuding with co-worker and lover Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who is about to find herself wrapped up in the arms of another fellow speedster with considerable quads who is shot through director David Koepp’s lens as if to appear superhuman.
One particular package takes Wiley to Columbia University, where he picks up an envelope from Vanessa’s roommate Nima (Jamie Cheung), not realizing that the package is being pursued by a looney toon of a cop, Det. Monday (Michael Shannon). When Wiley informs him that he can’t let go of the package to anyone who simply says they’re a cop, a citywide chase begins, leading the viewer to wonder exactly what the envelope’s contents feature, and why this detective desires it so.
Koepp, a veteran screenwriter of studio blockbusters like “Jurassic Park” and “Spider-Man,” doesn’t base his direction on splashy spectacle, though there are a number of endearing low-fi tricks employed to emphasize the sense of danger Wiley encounters. On three separate occasions, Koepp freezes the film, using onscreen graphics to illustrate the potential paths he could take. Go right and you’ll bump into a baby carriage, hang left and your spine will be rearranged. When the uninitiated need to be reminded of the city’s geography, the camera enters Wiley’s GPS system to present a 3D map of where the characters are headed.
None of that is very creative, of course, but “Premium Rush” is purposely aiming low, giving the audience a minimum of exposition before it’s off to the races. As a strict genre piece, “Premium Rush” hums and whirrs with the rhythm of the city, and the kineticism of Gordon-Levitt’s pedaling skills. The bike skills aren’t outlandish, though the mixture of speedy two-wheeled flair and midtown congestion proves exciting and unusual as far as the vocabulary of the modern action picture. There’s an admirable element of folklore within Koepp’s tale — Wiley is powerless without wheels, and invincible with them, outwitting not only Monday, but an irate, skilled bike cop.
Unfortunately, it can’t just be a package, and Monday can’t just be a corrupt cop, so Koepp fills in the narrative blanks with flashbacks that stunt the momentum of the picture. It’s compelling to have a man chased through the city, but a lengthy cutaway providing context is rarely going to keep the pace so frenetic. Having Wiley trying to deliver a mystery package is much more interesting than the truth, which involves him being the savior of the backroom dealings of comely Asian women, ancient Asian men and their unscrupulous politics, a plotline of questionable taste.
These flashbacks, and the non-action sequences as a whole, are carried by an absolutely deranged Michael Shannon. In a performance that will remind many of Christopher Walken at his best, Shannon’s Detective Monday frequently goes off on tangents about appropriate language on television and peppering his exclamations with a girlish “hee hee hee!” It’s as if he’s surprised, and maybe a little tickled, to learn his predicament is making him the villain of an action film. Apropos of nothing, he tells people his name is Detective Forrest J. Ackerman. You won’t find a funnier villain turn in any studio picture this year.
One could easily draw conclusions about the extended incubation period of "Premium Rush," as the film was shot almost two years ago. The ending, however, stinks of reshoots, a disastrous denouement that suggests the production quickly ran out of money and time. Worse still, it’s an ending that runs counterintuitive to the chase narrative, slowing down right when the production should be ramped up. Just as the film is about to deliver it’s package, it sends the viewer an I.O.U. instead, botching two-thirds of what may be Koepp’s most entertaining film as a director. [B-]