Monday, September 3, 2012
Premium Rush gets off to a great start, following reckless, brake-less rider Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) barreling nonstop through traffic-gnarled streets as he casually gets into phoned arguments with his girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez, also playing a bike messenger), pissing matches with ripped colleague Manny (Wolé Parks) and trying to get more work (and cash) from his flippant boss (Aasif Mandvi). Like Scott, Koepp casually employs a multiracial cast not for the sake of commentary but merely as a reflection of an increasingly diverse America. And like Scott, Koepp wastes no time introducing the central, driving conflict, embodied in this case by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a crooked cop who attempts to intercept a letter entrusted to Wilee by a friend (Jamie Chung) in order to pay off some gambling debts he owes to Chinese mobsters.
All of this is communicated in mere minutes, with breakneck speed but visual fluidity that keeps everything coherent even as digital cameras placed low to the ground race feverishly along with Wilee's split-second reroutes around traffic jams (including visualized what-if paths that all lead to crashes until Wilee finds the perfect escape). Time stamps on-screen show a realistic passage of time as these characters pedal miles and miles at a time, but Derek Ambrosi and Jill Savitt's editing gives the early material, and the first chase between Wilee, Monday and a hapless bike cop who gets drawn into Wilee's dangerous evasive maneuvers is among the most thrilling sequences of the summer.
Then, the pace completely collapses. Koepp starts throwing to flashbacks that begin at the dizzying, slick speed of the what came before that soon turn to plodding, wholly unnecessary backstory. Koepp, a screenwriter by trade, perhaps feels the need to overcompensate as a director, to show Monday getting into debts, or the reason Nima has to send such a valuable package to a mysterious person in Chinatown. But these are matters summed up in single sentences, and to devote minutes to Monday stumbling around Chinatown dropping stacks of cash on games or Nima's issues with authorities back in China saps the momentum from the film with whiplash-quickness. And even when the film gets the thread back, it moves into much duller midpoint sequence that makes Willee race a belligerently irritating Manny for the object now revealed to have deep personal consequences. Manny's incessant boasts and refusal to stop only serve to derail an already sidetracked movie.
At last, though, Koepp and co. live up to the early promise when Manny's insipid chase is cut short by police and Wilee gradually recruits every bike messenger in the city to help his cause. Gordon-Levitt and Shannon even get to share a deliciously ludicrous torture scene that lets Shannon jettison what little restraint he had shown to this point. Compared to the other talky moments of the film, this bit flows into the action rather than interrupting it. A chase out of police impound manages to top even the early promise of the first sequence. In such moments, Premium Rush displays a physicality and ingenuity so sorely missing from most of the bloated blockbusters released this year. A brief outtake during the credits of Gordon-Levitt proudly brandishing an open wound received from a sudden journey through a cab's rear windshield is worth more than all the CGI in the world.