It’s not often I’ll go and see a movie just because of who’s on it but where Joseph Gordon-Levitt is involved my usual habits don’t apply. With the high-profile and highly rated Looper coming just next weekend it could be easy to overlook this rather more modest picture as reflected in the fact that my local multiplex is only playing it for one week. But while Premium Rush might not be on a par with much of JGL’s recent output which includes 50/50, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, that doesn’t mean it should be completely ignored because it’s daft fun.
JGL is Wilee, a cocky young man whose profession is one of the most dangerous in New York; he’s a bicycle messenger and as such faces death every day on the chaotic streets of Manhattan. Moreover he rides a beaten up old bike without brakes or gears; he has to keep pedalling and if he sees trouble ahead he can’t slow down and has to find a way through the carnage without killing himself or anyone else. So far it’s Speed on two wheels and his job gets even more exciting when Michael Shannon’s dirty cop demands he hand over his newest package and starts chasing him all over Manhattan seemingly willing to stop at nothing to claim it.
There aren’t a whole lot of classic vehicular thrillers that focus on the humble bicycle and there’s a good reason for that but director David Koepp probably squeezes the most fast-paced excitement from them yet seen on screen. The numerous frantic pursuits through busy traffic are shot with great energy and confidence carrying with them a very clear sense of peril and Manhattan looks great as it whizzes by. The director pumps up the pace with fun use of on-screen time updates and overhead route shots. It’s breathlessly exciting so it’s a shame that the bold pace is so neutered by a number of lengthy flashbacks explaining the contrived back-story behind the hot package and Shannon’s interest in it.
With anyone else playing him Wilee could be the kind of infuriatingly reckless idiot that drivers love to hate but in JGL’s hands he becomes a renegade hero, young, crazy and in over his head but fundamentally likeable as a non-conformist thrill-seeker. The star also handles his bike extremely well, one post credits scene demonstrating he did at least one of his own stunts, intentional or not. Michael Shannon makes his perfect antithesis as a complete arse of a bent policeman you’ll have no trouble hating. The rest of the supporting cast don’t really stand out beyond stereotypes and plot devices but the material just isn’t there to allow anyone else to shine.
Premium Rush is daft fun for ninety minutes, one that relies on good old-fashioned stunt work over explosions and CGI (although I think I spotted the join on some digitally inserted cars). The script’s involvement in the micro-culture of the subject matter and a number of little gimmicks (such as Wilee mentally simulating his immediate future in particularly dangerous scenarios) keep things amusing. It just won’t set anyone’s world alight, unless perhaps you’re the kind of person who never misses a second of the Tour de France.
JGL elevates this silly but likeable thriller but not quite to essential status.