Over the weekend I took the opportunity to see the bike messenger action movie Premium Rush. Yes, a bike messenger action movie. The movie was written and directed by David Koepp. This name might be familiar to many people, and with good reason. Koepp is the fourth highest grossing writer if one is to go by domestic box office. He has written such screenplays as Toy Soliders, Death Becomes Her, Jurassic Park, Ghost Town, Spider-Man, Men in Black 3, and so on. While I wouldn’t call all of his films great pieces, I respect the depth and breadth of his work. The man is prolific. His directorial turns are much less numerous, but Premium Rush is an example of him as both a writer and a director. In Premium Rush, Koepp does his best to capture the aesthetic of an open city bicycling video game. You might say it’s in the same vein as the Crank films, but without the comical action and gonzo nature of the works. He opts for a visual style that works to keep the young, hip, alternative nature of the subject matter, but is still accessible enough to hopefully be a mainstream success. The problem is that the script often works to run counter to this style, and the obvious lack of familiarity with the current vernacular, and the PG-13 rating, gives it a false ring at times, particularly when contrasted with the obvious care given to the cycling culture.
Before I continue further it needs to be mentioned that I am an avid cyclist. I ride roughly twenty miles a day right now, and that’s a number that keep climbing. I am not a roadie, road warrior, fixie, hipster, or any other specific term that you might apply. I’m just a guy that prefers cycling for his daily exercise and loves to ride. However, I do keep pretty current with the different types of bicycles, participate in various types of rides and am pretty aware of the various cycling subcultures. I even have plans to visit a velodrome in the not too distant future. With that in mind, I am pretty much the target audience for this movie. I know a good bit about cycling, I like action movies, and I’m still pretty young. When discussing this movie with a friend, he was boggled that this stuff even existed, much less was made into the subject matter of a film. I can’t say I disagree, but at least that goes to show the Koepp was willing to tackle a field that hasn’t seen much media light.
That being said, I greatly enjoyed the movie, but it’s very much a traditional action movie with slightly different trappings. The good thing is that the things that work really work, and the things that don’t work come across as intentionally comical rather than downright bad, as they might in so many other films, with only a few exception. This is entirely the result of excellent casting. The casting is good enough, like many other films of this past season now that I think about it, to cause a willingness to gloss over the details of the film that are nonsensical or just simply not good.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt effortlessly pulls off the role of Wilee, like the coyote, hyuck, a post-law school graduate who has bucked the system and lives for the thrill of the ride more than anything else. He positively screams counter culture icon with his fixed gear, steel framed bike, eating at food trucks, and general stick-it-to-the-man attitude. He’s cocky, knows he’s cocky and gives so very little of a fuck. The thing he does care about is his recently ex-girlfriend Vanessa, Dania Ramirez. The chemistry between the two of them is very believable, and their dialogue is one of the shining examples of real dialogue in the film. Aasif Mandvi is very believable as Raj, the owner and dispatcher of the bike messenger service that Wilee works for. He comes across as a lovable douchebag, which is about what you would expect. Wolé Parks does a good job in his role as Manny, the good looking, vein, egotistical rival of Wilee. Manny rides a custom carbon-fiber multi-gear bike, complete with brakes. The debate of who is faster, Manny or Wilee, plays a central role in the film. He talks in the third person and is a bit of a buffoon, but it’s played that way with great intention, so it’s not too bad or distracting. Michael Shannon is the villain of the film, by the name of Bobby Monday. Shannon does an excellent job of portraying a desperate man with impulse control issues. He oscillates between intense and comically unstable, but plays it that way on purpose. This is a guy who isn’t quite right in the head, and his addictive, impulsive behavior is what gets him in trouble. Jamie Chung is basically a non-entity in the film, but she wasn’t offensive or anything, so there’s that.
The bicycle action scenes are all fairly well done. The chases are nicely paced, visually interesting, and often interspersed with snappy dialogue. The movie also makes good use of what I can only describe as a series of quick-time events. I could easily imagine playing this movie as a game, and having to select the appropriate “Messenger Vision” route to avoid crashing and burning. “Messenger Vision” is a series of micro-scenes that show Wilee trying to traverse a busy intersection and the various ways in which he fails. The scenes even include a pathing arrow to show you the potentially traversed path first, and then has giant red X’s to indicate a collision. It’s part of the overall aesthetic, but when this is coupled with the route-mapping scene cuts it plays almost exactly like watching a video game. Given that Crank was basically GTA the movie, it’s not surprising that I am making parallels between the aesthetics of the two films.
A lot of the film is told non-linearly as well. It starts with a certain time stamp, and then rewinds an hour and a half. The time doesn’t stay linear from that point, and jumps several hours into the past at times so that the backstory might be told. The movie does this at only a few intervals, and only when appropriate. It was fairly well done, and added a lot of exposition to the film in a way that was shown, rather than told. I am a fan of this whenever it can be done, so I greatly appreciated this approach. It needs to be said that I am a sucker for a slick non-linear film, so I might be more forgiving and enthusiastic than it might otherwise warrant.
The movie is as silly as you might think in places. The ending, the running gag of the bicycle cop, the strange dialogue at times, the very idea that we should reconsider the phrases “suck it” and “douchebag” when the very same guy said “Don’t fuck with me” earlier in the film. There is an extended BMX trick sequence that is fun, but is still kind of wedged in simply because they made a point early in the film to state that “Wilee doesn’t do that trick stuff any more”, so you knew it had to come up. The movie also goes out of the way to really espouse the “fixie agenda”. I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek, because the movie approaches it from an extremist view. The repeated phrase of “Brakes are death” plays a role in the film, and Vanessa experiencing and accepting the fixie lifestyle is a big part of the film as well. It’s all heavy handed and a bit sigh inducing. The only time this really bothered me is when a multi-gear bike is suddenly treated as if it were a fixed gear bike. The way you stop a fixed gear bike can’t instantly apply to a multi-gear bike. That freewheeling is a bitch, guys.
Overall the film was very enjoyable, but it is definitely a breezy action flick at heart. It shows some ingenuity and clever compilation, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. I’d rate it at a solid two smiley faces. It’s probably a film that I’d find myself watching whenever it popped up on TV.