Monday, September 3, 2012

Premium Rush (David Koepp, 2012)

David Koepp's Premium Rush feels like the first posthumous tribute to the work of the late Tony Scott. Unintentional, of course, but beneficial for those of us already missing the British director and wondering if anyone could match, much less exceed, his approach to action filmmaking. Koepp certainly cannot top Scott, but for a time, but it appears he picked up a thing or two while doing uncredited rewrites for The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Stylistically, Premium Rush feels like a throwback to Enemy of the State-era Scott, with its constant zooms in and out of satellite views of New York City as a GPS plots courses for the bike messengers on whom the film focuses. Narratively, though, it calls to mind Scott's fondness for regularly making epic the banal occupations of working-class stiffs. In bike couriers, Koepp nearly manages to surpass Scott in choice of subject. Not only are these men and women paid wretchedly for grueling work, they may be the most hated group in New York City, foe to pedestrian and driver alike.

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.


  1. I was also surprised by how good Rush was, even though I had a feeling. It's JGL. He almost kicked Michael Myers' ass when he was like, 12 in Halloween H20.

    A lot of people are still recovering from Scott's tragic death. With some luck, more directors will be inspired by his work.

    1. Indeed, though what he did was so out there for the mainstream that I wonder if anyone could even successfully rip off all his charm, much less build on it.

  2. I enjoyed reading your review; after my colleague from Dish came into work running her mouth about Gordon-Levitt, I have to see this movie. Obviously, I’m not the only one happy to see JGL popping up all over the silver screen, but personally, I’m really excited to see Michael Shannon once again portray a character in his witty way, and see some kick’n graphics. I’m excited for Premium Rush to be released from theaters, since I’ll be getting the Blu-ray from Blockbuster @Home; my schedule doesn’t give me much spare time to play. Furthermore, I’m sure there will be some fantastic special features to go along with the intense sequences I’m reading about.

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