Pedal Pusher Biking up the Wrong Street
Crowded streets, tight escapes, and heavy pedal action speedily wedge their way through Premium Rush, an often-unexposed peek at two-wheeled manual transportation. I say peek because the story is told within a four-hour time period, but you’d be amazed how many New York City blocks can accumulate in that span. With swerving energy, zips, and zings, it is a nice present at the end of the summer, wrapped with clunky characters and an easy plot, but handled with a whole lot of spunk.
But managing some plot holes (and pot holes for that matter) and melodramatic relationships are secondary quibbles to the fast pace bike rides that fill the film’s start to finish. The protagonists are bike messengers, zipping downtown and uptown from a dispatch, carrying messages guarded more closely and efficiently than the postal service. It is, like most jobs, competitive, breeding confidence and most times arrogance, displayed most passionately by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He continues to show his versatility amidst another busy year in which he’s embodied a noble cop in The Dark Knight Rises, a young Bruce Willis in Looper due Sept. 28, and Abraham Lincoln’s son later this December. This time, it’s his physicality on display, traversing Manhattan through traffic and frequent bruises.
David Koepp writes and directs this chase film that relies almost entirely on real stunts and minimal computer gizmos. This is new territory for a popular screenwriter whose credits include Spiderman and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, films that lean upon CGI to bolster a specific reality. Koepp, however, had another challenge in crossing car-driven drama onto two wheels. Motorized pursuits have been staples in cinema, using their speed and force to bring thrills and spills on screen. Cars, though, eventually have to stop, from a police brigade, cement barriers, or rush-hour traffic- mere speed bumps to bikers, who skid and jump in creative fashion, keeping tempo from lagging.
In fact, Gordon-Levitt’s character Wilee doesn’t even have breaks on his bike. He is one of the daredevils in his biking brethren that both impresses and endangers. The former qualifier captured the heart of Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), a fellow rider who fell in love with Wiley’s risky routine. The latter is what may be in charge of breaking them up, especially after another messenger Manny (Wole Parks) both convinces and seduces her on the matter. The pay is cheap but Wilee isn’t content sitting in an office. He’s in his twenties, still agile (for now) and plans on grabbing life by the handle bars.
This all takes a back seat after Wilee takes a seemingly innocent good paying job to end his shift. Without knowing it, he picks up a package with a coveted ticket worth a pretty penny and plans to take it downtown. Interrupting him however is a crooked cop (Michael Shannon), in debt to his gambling addiction and aware of the value in Wiley’s delivery. But he’s got to catch him first.
Shannon, who turned in a stellar performance as man with psychosis last year in Take Shelter, turns in another kind of crazy here. Comically corrupt, he plays like a cartoonish caricature, feverish but focused. In between this cat and mouse, the ticketed object of desire contains far more than monetary value. Vanessa’s roommate (Jamie Chung) has an international secret, entrusted to a Buddhist sage and accomplice that puts a political undertow into a seemingly innocent collage of adrenalized lives.
I can’t say this deepens anything but it creates an empathetic cause to a rather usual day of cycling. But it’s not entirely dirty business. Koepp, like his quirky quips he wrote for Tobey MacGuire’s Peter Parker, keeps levity with running gags, one of which involves an NYPD biker, and offhanded cracks. He also has fun keeping things in perspective, and I mean that in the most literal of terms. Every route, every assignment garners a google earth shot of Manhattan, with angled directions from point A to B. The slapstick comes in a different kind of GPS system in which Wilee, frozen in time, has an omniscient lens, calculating the outcomes of a desired path- some of which are particularly gruesome.
It is always fascinating to see a profession unknown to many, displayed both as an organized and hostile fraternity with its own unwritten rules and tricks of the trade. Premium Rush at 85 minutes still feels long and I think it’s because its content caters to a mini-series. With each show a new day perhaps, a new mission, new possibilities, new people to meet, new intrigue to happen upon. Wilee is right. For now, this is (the) life.