I've always thought that bicycle messengers had to be a little crazy...well, at least the ones who work in major metropolitan areas. I see them all the time in downtown Chicago on my way to work...zipping through the streets, clambering up on the sidewalks, darting in and out of traffic...I can't even imagine doing something like that on a daily basis. In fact, I often ask myself why anybody would choose to have such a seemingly insane occupation?
In David Koepp's "Premium Rush," a very well-executed thrill-ride, the protagnist Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes it very clear why he's employed as a New York city bike messenger: he loves to ride, and he can't fathom the idea of having to go work in an office every day, wearing a business suit. This seems reasonable enough, but there's also little doubt that Wilee is also addicted to the rush; he loves the sense of adventure that comes with the job, especially since the chances of getting seriously hurt, or worse, are extremely high. He doesn't even use brakes or gears on his bike.
However, he's also incredibly skilled at his job. In an interesting and rather humorous visual touch, whenever Wilee comes to an especially busy intersection, time seems to slow down. We see in his mind as he maps out the different potential paths he can take...as well as their probable outcomes (like getting slammed by an oncoming taxi, or knocking over a woman approaching with a baby carriage). He's become so good at his job that he can basically read the streets, accurately predicting the route that vehicles and pedestrians are going to take. He quickly calculates the safest possible route for himself and whisks through.
It's a good thing Wilee is so adept at his profession, because one day he finds himself in possession of an extremely important package, one that needs to be delivered by a certain time or the consequences would be severe. This is probably true of many of Wilee's daily deliveries, but what makes this one different is that a gambling-addicted cop (Michael Shannon) desperately needs this package. He's gotten into hot water with some gangsters, and the package is his ticket out.
It's amazing how formulaic the movie is, and yet also how successful. I've commented before that formula movies can work, sometimes quite well, but even considering this, I was surprised at how engaged I was in this movie. It's basically a chase flick, a game of cat-and-mouse, as the cop pursues the bike messenger all over the city, using whatever means necessary to try and corner his prey. There's nothing particularly new here, but the action is fast-paced, and I liked seeing the ways the two adversaries had to constantly come up with different tactics to thwart the other.
The contents of the package are essentially unimportant; yes, we do find out what is in there and what the stakes are, but even if we didn't, it wouldn't matter. All you need to know is it's the object of everybody's desire. It drives the plot, moves things forward. In short, it's a Macguffin, and one of the finest examples of one I've seen in recent years.
Yes, there is a lot of formula here, but sometimes style can really make a difference. Koepp is a capable director (previous credits include "Secret Window" and "Stir of Echoes"), and I really felt like I was riding alongside Wiley, careening through New York traffic. I already mentioned the slowing-down-time/visualizing-potential-outcomes trick above, but there's also the escape from the impound lot, which is just plain, goofy fun. Simply put, these sequences are expertly done.
I enjoyed the performances as well. Gordon-Levitt infuses Wilee with his natural charms, making the character somewhat brash yet still likeable. As his nemesis, Shannon proves again, as he did with last summer's "Man of Steel," that he makes a superb villain. What makes this guy so formidable is not that he's necessarily an evil man (though he's certainly not a good one) so much as a desperate one, and that makes him especially dangerous. Desperation can make even the most laid-back person do some terrible things; when you're dealing with a man who was already on edge prior to him reaching his point of desperation, the aftermath can get ugly. Shannon perfectly captures this.
The movie is quick (only 90 minutes) and it moves at a breakneck pace, which is to its advantage; not only does it make the proceedings more exciting, but it also then doesn't really give the audience time to dwell on some of the implausibilities of the plot. Even so, I will comment that I found the ending to be rather lackluster. The resolution to the package dilemma teeters dangerously close to deus ex machina territory (especially with the miraculous appearance of a barely-seen character), and I found myself wondering why Wilee didn't try to do something like this earlier.
Even so, "Premium Rush" lives up to its name. This is a well-executed actioner that will often-times leave you on the edge of your seat. I still think bicycle messengers have to be a little crazy to do what they do, but I can definitely see how there'd be a thrill to it as well (though I doubt that many real-life messengers have to deal with situations like this...although you never know...).