The easy way to review David Koepp’s “Premium Rush” would be to say it is a fun action movie about people who ride bicycles real fast around New York City. It is not meant to compete with "The Avengers" or "Batman," and it is probably best suited for a Saturday night rental with some friends. But under the surface, there are enough interesting points in the film to justify additional analysis.
“Premium Rush” begins with a massive soundtrack blast from The Who, which sets up an interesting dichotomy for the film. Because even as Pete Townshend’s 1970s anthem laments the angst of the “teenage wasteland,” lifelong fans of the band might have a tough time supporting the film’s heroes.
If it’s true that today’s 20-somethings are struggling in their efforts to transition into full adulthood, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s character in “Premium Rush” could be their poster child. Leavitt plays Wilee (pronounced “Wyle-E,” not “Willy”), an adrenaline junkie who has eschewed the button-down life of his law school graduate peers to embrace a different kind of stressful life: the high-paced, hand-to-mouth existence of a New York City bicycle courier.
Every day is spent navigating the labyrinth of the city streets, dodging taxicabs, running red lights and flying by unwitting pedestrians as he delivers whatever missive he’s been assigned. But Wilee is unique even among the couriers: his bike only has one gear, and it doesn’t have any brakes. He knows this life can’t last forever, and his daily rides feel like a desperate attempt to stay ahead of the pressures of a standard day job.
As the film opens, Wilee’s comfort zone is beginning to crack: his relationship with another courier (Dania Ramirez) has become strained, and he faces daily competition from Manny (Wolé Parks), the spandex-clad Ivan Drago to his purist Rocky. But when he is asked to deliver a mysterious envelope that attracts the attention of a crooked cop with escalating gambling debts (Michael Shannon), “Premium Rush” makes the jump from “series of bicycle action sequences” to “series of bicycle action sequences loosely connected to a non-linear plot.”
The film’s tempo and editing reflect the breakneck pace of the courier job. There is no 3-D, and CGI is only employed on birds-eye-view establishment shots that give the viewer a visual context of where Leavitt and his fellow couriers are riding.
But while the film is all about getting from Point A to Point B, Wilee never really seems to get anywhere. The young and the restless remain the heroes, while the authority figures are still the bad guys.
Shannon’s Detective Monday is supposed to be an intense control freak who teeters close to the edge of sanity, but at times his behavior almost becomes so cartoon-like it’s hard to decide whether to fear him or laugh at him. Another authority figure, an NYPD bicycle cop who unsuccessfully tries to keep the public safe from Wilee’s reckless riding, is little more than a running gag.
“Premium Rush” is a standard PG-13 film with a steady stream of violence that pushes but never exceeds its limits, an obligatory “F-word,” enough PG-13-level profanity to fill in the gaps and enough bicycle stunts to offend the casual urban commuter.
In retrospect, that may be the most interesting effect of the film. One part of the audience will look at Wilee zipping through the streets and think, “Wow, that looks cool.” The other part will look at Wilee, curse under their breath and secretly hope he gets hit by a bus.
If it were anything more than a late-summer throwaway action film, “Premium Rush” might spark a culture war between people who ride their bikes to work and the commuters in cars who hate them.
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Violence: "Premium Rush" is primarily built around speed and action, but it does feature some instances of beatings and one shooting that could be disturbing to a younger audience.
Language: "Premium Rush" has one token use of the "F-word" and is peppered with a variety of lower-level profanity throughout its running time.
Moral: "Premium Rush" offers a primary theme of compassion and service on its surface but also supports more implicit themes of disrespect for authority and a celebration of the recklessness of youth.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.