Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review: "Premium Rush"

At one point in the early going of "Premium Rush," a man driving a car hurtling after a bike messenger cackles to himself with disbelief, "I'm chasin' a bicycle!!" And I felt like yelling back, "And I'm watching a movie about you chasin' a bicycle!!"

"Premium Rush" looks and feels like a lightweight movie, because it is. But it also happens to be an unusually well-made one. The premise is so absurd that it sounds like a put-on: daredevil bike messenger is chased around Manhattan by a corrupt police detective after the secret envelope he's carrying.

The really preposterous thing is that the filmmakers and cast manage to engage us in this hyped-up thriller, and actually care about the characters.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a legend in the bike messenger community (which seems to consist entirely of lean, scruffy twentysomethings with a plethora of piercings and tats). Wilee rides without fear, using a steel-frame bike with set gears and no brakes. He's like a shark on wheels, believing that to stop moving is to die.

Director David Koepp, who also wrote the screenplay with John Kamps, approaches the material with a documentary-style mindset, inserting all sorts of details about these crazy people who weave in and out of New York City traffic like the world's most dangerous Olympic event.

There's the thick, chunky chains and locks they wear around their waists like a belt, so they can quickly lock up their rides when dropping off and picking up packages. And the way they despise cabs for their abrupt stops and perilous opening doors, but save their worst insults for pedestrians.

Wilee's a classic sort of protagonist for this type of film -- he graduated from Columbia Law School, but hasn't taken the bar exam because he prefers to ride the streets for $80 a day. (No mention how he's repaying his student loans on that trickle of cash flow.) He's recently been dumped by his girlfriend, fellow bike messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who can't understand all the risks he takes.

His main nemesis is Manny (Wolé Parks), a preening show-off who has designs on Wilee's top-dog status and his lady, too.

Wilee is finishing out a normal day when he gets called to pick up a package from Columbia and take it to a Chinatown restaurant. It turns out the customer is Nima (Jamie Chung), Vanessa's secretive roommate, who has recently asked her to move out. Wilee doesn't care much, other than it's an extra $30 in his pocket.

Until, that is, Robert Monday shows up, demanding the envelope Nima gave him. Wilee declines and gives him the slip, declaring that even if he is a humble bike messenger, "Once it goes in the bag, it stays in the bag." He maintains this attitude even after the man gives chase in his car, and is revealed to be a cop.

Played by Michael Shannon, Monday is a terrific bundle of nervous energy and malevolence, part clown and part psychopath. Hooked on gambling and loaded with debts, Monday is like a one-man circle of victimization, inflicting and receiving punishment in turn.

At one point he submits to a vicious beating by some Chinese enforcers because of his debts, but becomes incensed when they knock one of his teeth out. "There are rules!!" he hollers, quickly turning the tables on them and upping the ante. He's easily one of the most memorable villains we've seen this summer.

Things go from there, with the action playing out in more-or-less real time, with the boring parts cut out and replaced with flashbacks to earlier moments as we flesh out the background and characters a little more. This has the effect of making the people more sympathetic -- even Detective Monday, who's such a self-destructive mess that the loan sharks and bookies even feel a little sorry for him.

In this type of movie, the thing Wilee is carrying is generally a classic MacGuffin -- an object whose exact nature or meaning is unimportant, other than everyone wants it. Except that about halfway through, he learns the significance of the tiny slip of paper he's carrying, and the stakes are raised considerably.

The action scenes are exciting enough, with impressive stunt work interspersed with some computer-generated crashes and effects. One of the neat gimmicks is Wilee's ability to approach a congested intersection stuffed with all sorts of perils, and instantly envision different outcomes depending on which way he turns.

I went into "Premium Rush" expecting nothing much, and in truth I came away without much of any lingering substance. But it's a zippy, fun ride, and more skillfully made than you'd expect.

3 stars out of four

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