Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Premium Rush Movie Review

Premium Rush starts with a bang-whoosh, revs up the adrenaline with a dynamic camera following a bike messenger through the streets of New York City, and kicks up the rock soundtrack. Then it doesn’t let up for the next 90 minutes. Just when you think you’ve settled into a groove along with the story, it throws you for a loop by doubling back on itself to fill in some crucial piece of story information. A digital clock appears on the screen to let you know what time it is or was. Then just as suddenly it whizzes you back into the present.

The hero of this thriller that makes inventive use of different ways of staging a bike chase is Wilee (as in that cartoon coyote that gets knocked down again and again, but just keeps coming back for more punishment). He speeds through Manhattan on a bike with no gears and no brakes. This metaphor for how he lives his life (he’s a graduate of Columbia Law who just can’t bring himself to take the Bar and spend his life behind a desk) gets hammered home a little hard, but the overall lack of subtlety in the screenplay by David Koepp and John Kamps is barely noticeable amid the breakneck pacing that Koepp sets in his role as director.

Wilee takes a job picking up an envelope from his girlfriend’s roommate at Columbia. The delivery is promptly before 7:00pm at a restaurant in Chinatown. The girl who gives him the envelope is nervous and hesitant to give up whatever its contents are. Before leaving campus, Wilee is accosted by a man who has a suspicious way of trying to acquire the envelope. Then the first chase begins which involves Wilee on two wheels, pursued by a man in a car. Later chases will involve two bicycles, then pedestrians. The plot details seem odd at first and you’re likely to be scratching your head, but the answers are slowly filled in with flashbacks. Without revealing too much, we learn the man who wants the envelope is a dirty cop with a gambling debt; the girlfriend, Vanessa (also a messenger), is being pursued by their colleague and Wilee’s rival, Manny; Nima, the roommate didn’t accidentally choose Wilee as the delivery man. More than that I won’t say.

Besides some serious effort and stunt work on a bicycle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t have to bring a whole lot to the role of Wilee. He brings his usual charm and devil-may-care attitude, but the demands the screenplay places on his as an actor are light. There’s no discounting the fact that he put himself through the back window of a taxi and required more than 30 stitches in his arm, however. Michael Shannon is the bad cop trying to get the goods. He’s unfortunately sort of typecast now as a wild-eyed lunatic. He chews up the scenery a little too much this time. Dania Ramirez and Wolé Parks as Vanessa and Manny have the necessary athletic look and cut muscle tone. Their hard bodies glisten with sweat and they look great, but the movie asks even less of them than its star.

The weak characterizations notwithstanding, the plot is reasonably intriguing and Koepp’s presentation is original, energetic, and keeps the excitement up. He’s got several tricks he employs including the use of an on screen maps app to illustrate Wilee’s routes and a visual representation of what goes on in his head when faced with several alternatives to weave through traffic and pedestrians. It’s a perfect pictorial of what goes on in my own head when I walk through a crowd, ride a bike, or drive a car on the highway. Koepp may employ these occasional digital toys to spice up the movie, but most of what he shoots is – by appearances anyway – devoid of computer magic. The stunts and the obstacles are real as far as the eye can tell. That suggests something very positive either about the state of digital animation or of the propensity (for now at least) of filmmakers to avoid digital manipulation wherever possible.

You probably won’t walk away from Premium Rush feeling like you can’t wait to see it again and after several weeks most of the details are likely to fade into obscurity, but for the moment it works. Sometimes, out of desperation perhaps, we yearn for well-made action films that don’t demand too much. It won’t knock your socks off, but I can think of countless less enjoyable ways to spend 90 minutes.

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