Film Review: Premium Rush

Experience a bike messenger's view of Manhattan with 'Premium Rush,' where racing through an intersection becomes a death-defying puzzle. Realistic stunts help compensate for plot holes and weak characterization.

In action movies, car chases strain believability. All that swerving, going the wrong direction, and inability to stay within the dotted white lines—not much of that could happen in real life. For bike messengers, traffic violations are just how you get from point A to B. Writer-director David Koepp, who penned such action classics as Mission: Impossible, Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, finds an organic source of hair-raising action with his latest movie, Premium Rush, which filmed two years ago in Manhattan. The only problem is making the audience believe the characters are crazy enough to risk their lives to deliver an envelope. Here, that task can be a lot more difficult than nailing bike stunts.

One summer afternoon, bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) takes a “premium rush” delivery that turns into a 90-minute race against taxis, a dirty cop, and a well-meaning member of the NYPD bike patrol. At first, Wilee protects the package on principle, even as he’s being tailed by a Toyota Camry, in the humdrum model’s most aggressive role to date. The driver of that car, Detective Monday (Michael Shannon), turns out to have incurred a debt in Chinatown’s underground gambling scene. The envelope contains a ticket that’s worth $50,000 under hawala, an underground money system that helps money cross borders discreetly (and has been frequently targeted in the post-9/11 world). As Wilee later finds out, the ticket is supposed to help a grad student (Jamie Chung) bring her child over from China, but of course that’s none of Monday’s concern. If only Monday can steal this envelope, he can settle his debts and start gambling again. Shannon’s bad cop verges in and out of being a caricature, but the actor’s performance satisfies on a more visceral level. His more extreme acts amuse, and he easily commands the screen.

Most Manhattan-set productions don’t bother to follow the laws of geography, but Premium Rush matches up the bike routes with city streets closely, if not perfectly. Wilee plugs directions into his smart-phone, giving the audience a peek at how he is mapping his journey. There’s also a clever “Bike Vision” that pulls us into Wilee’s mind as he tries to figure out a route through an intersection that won’t result in tipped-over baby carriages, smashed windshields, or pedestrians caught under a delivery truck. As Wilee pedals through Central Park and the Upper West Side, he keeps in touch with other messengers via wireless headsets, another crafty workaround that allows for more dialogue. Wilee’s most frequent calls are to Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), his sometime girlfriend, and Manny (Wolé Parks), a rival for Vanessa’s affections who gets in the way of Wilee’s delivery.

At times, it seems that the characters aren’t thinking of the most logical solutions to their problems—just the ones that lead to the most bike chases. Maybe Wilee and his crew have had too many concussions? The characters have been drawn so razor-quick, it’s hard to justify their choices based on their supposed personality traits. Can Manny really be so obstinate? Is Vanessa really so passive? Does Wilee really have that much of a death wish?

This year has been a big one for Manhattan-set tentpoles, from The Avengers blowing up enemies on Park Avenue, a lizard-man invading sewers and climbing skyscrapers in The Amazing Spider-Man, and the Manhattan-esque Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises. Those movies used complex arrays of green screens, visual effects and alternate sets to create their Manhattan. Premium Rush filmed its action sequences without any of those extras, as I discovered one day while walking down Fifth Avenue as bicycles zipped past, along with fast-moving taxis and cars. The stunts in this movie are the real deal. Watching bikers careen through traffic onscreen will give audiences a new respect for the messengers who whiz past them on the street. Wilee may be a risk-taker, but his character has nothing on the lead, Dave, in the ultimate cycling movie, 1979’s Breaking Away. Premium Rush is unlikely to create a new generation of daredevil bikers, but it’s a nice burst of adrenaline that cuts through the late August heat.