Every day on the streets of New York City, hundreds of bike messengers carry parcels too important for the mail and too urgent for standard private delivery services. One of these brave men and women is Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who risks death for $80 a day if he’s lucky. Darting in and out of traffic, Wilee and his compatriots serve a very important purpose, but one particular package is going to turn out to be more dangerous than Wilee could have ever expected.
That package is a movie ticket with a smiley face on it. If it sounds like nothing to you or me, it means a lot to the Chinese underworld. Nima (Jamie Chung) has given $50,000 to a member of the underworld banking system used by Chinese immigrants, and that ticket – which is basically a check – is bound for a snakehead (human trafficker) who promises to smuggle Nima’s son into the US. Unfortunately, a lot of bad people know about the ticket, including Detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a man with poor impulse control and a lot of gambling debts owed to a lot of bad people.
Thus, the race is on. Can Wilee get the ticket to Chinatown before Detective Monday, an overzealous bicycle cop (Christopher Place), and the entire NYPD track him down? Wilee’s got 90 minutes to deliver the package, or else.
When it comes to the visual style of Premium Rush, then, the emphasis is on the rush. The movie takes place in semi-real time and never really seems to slow down (even when it has slowed down). To that end, Premium Rush reminds me a lot of a realistic Crank. At no point does the movie seem to reach that outlandish level of cartoon action, but it simply refuses to stop. There are brief lulls, but it’s a change in level of action rather than an abandonment of the movie’s heart-stopping pace.
The credit goes in large part to director David Koepp, who does not have a traditional action director background. His best-known works are the terrific Ghost Town and Secret Window, neither of which are pulse-pounding thrillers. Still, he really ups his game with Premium Rush, if only in the sense that he successfully throws the audience into the action. There are some very clever camera movements, and the scenes in which the camera follow Wilee through the crowded streets of New York are very well done. The film has to use a host of stunt cyclists, stunt drivers, stunt pedestrians, and CGI trickery, but it’s all done seamlessly. According to the IMDB, real bicycle messengers served as riders and assorted crew, and I can believe it.
One of the coolest decisions made during filming is the use of aerial maps of Manhattan and GPS to track delivery routes (which is the other major thing that reminds me of Crank). When someone has to go from the northern end of Manhattan to Chinatown, that means basically nothing until you see just how far a trip that is for a bike messenger, and how many intersections said bike has to weave through to get there. Ditto the scenes where the audience gets to see how Wilee negotiates his way through traffic on his fixie: the multiple potential paths (and their consequences) are a clever way to put us in the driver’s seat to see just how quickly decisions have to be made, and how disastrous things can end up.
The script, from Koepp and John Kamps, is pretty light in terms of plot, but it’s a great skeleton to hang dramatic action on. That’s Koepp’s specialty as a writer, given his background with Jurassic Park, War Of The Worlds, Spider-Man, Mission: Impossible, and other effects-heavy flicks featuring a lot of running and chasing. The interpersonal conflicts between Wilee and rival Manny (Wole Parks) remain secondary to the action sequences, and it is to the movie’s credit that they are able to turn a mostly-friendly rivalry into a thrilling race scene through Central Park. The movie accomplishes all this with a minimum of violence or language. Premium Rush is PG-13, but you’d never know it based on the amount of sheer thrills the movie packs in its 91 minutes of runtime.
At the screening of Premium Rush I attended, in front of me in the theater were four retirement-aged people, two women and two men. As we were leaving the theater, I overheard them talking, and one simply said “it was just a good action-packed movie.” And that’s a great description for Premium Rush: a good action-packed movie.