I’m not sure if it’s possible for a director to misunderstand his own script. If it is possible, then David Koepp has accomplished this feat with his new film, Premium Rush. Koepp sees his story as one of mischievous imps who ride through the streets of New York. But the characters aren’t impish. They’re rebels, they’re outsiders, and they’re the kind of people who will take a chain to your driver’s side mirror if you fuck with them. Koepp has taken his rough-and-tumble world and pushed it through a slick filter of fun visual effects, quick maneuvers, time jumps, and other flourishes that give his movie a pulse, but not much of a heart. For all of Koepp’s obsession with bringing the world of bike messengers to life, he forgets that what really pushes a movie forward is a strong character in a compelling story.
Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bike messenger racing through the streets of New York because he doesn’t want to be tied down to a desk job and he loves to ride. The pay is crap, but he feels free on his bike with no brakes or gears. He may be on the outs with his girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and irritated by his rival, Manny (Wolé Parks), but life is pretty good until he has the misfortune of picking up a package from the anxious Nima (Jamie Chung), who desperately needs it delivered to Chinatown by 7:00pm. Wilee’s delivery becomes a challenge when corrupt cop Buddy Monday (Michael Shannon) wants to take the package before it can reach its destination.
Koepp cleverly tries to keep the momentum going by using flashbacks as a way to squeeze in exposition. If the movie played in chronological order, it wouldn’t even get going until the end of the first act. Instead, Koepp throws a big digital clock on the screen, and rewinds and flash-forwards to where he wants the story to go. The film kicks off with Wilee having just suffered a crash, and then quickly rewinds to two hours prior to his accident. The story progresses, we meet Monday, and then the story cuts back to what he was doing earlier, and why he wants the package. The pacing of the story meshes tremendously well with the speed of the cycling environment.
But it seems like Koepp is more in love with the bikes than the people. He’s definitely big on providing the “rush” of his title by throwing in little things like making sure characters have important conversations while they’re cycling through the streets of Manhattan. He’ll use little graphics to indicate the distance of their routes. And then there’s “Wilee-vision”, which is when the protagonist comes to a crosswalk, everything freezes, and Wilee can see which route will allow him to avoid a crash. It’s a neat effect, although it completely diminishes the threat of him not having breaks on his bike. Brakes are actually cited as being dangerous for cyclists, so I guess Wylie isn’t too much of a daredevil if he doesn’t have them. He’s also has a superpower, so that helps too.
The slick maneuvers and special effects never fits with the characters and their attitudes. Manny, with his carbon-fiber, gear-shifting bike, is the exception and he’s no match for Wilee. Manny and Vanessa think Wilee has a death wish, and Vanessa thinks he’s wasting his intelligence by dropping out of law school, and this may all be true, but we never see it. Wilee is a waste of a great actor because the character never develops, and his personality consists of him being cocky, nervous, or pissed-off. His wits are never tested beyond skillful hiding, his relationship with Vanessa is rote, and he’s simply The Best Bike Messenger in the World. At least Michael Shannon gets to have some fun chewing the scenery as only Michael Shannon can.
Bike messengers as depicted in Premium Rush are, by and large, jerks. They’re loyal to each other, and they’ll get the job done, but they’re the folks who cause car accidents, flee from cops, run red lights, and that’s fine if the tone fits their personalty. But their movie can’t simply be about “High-speed biking is cool,” and Koepp never acknowledges the characters’ recklessness. That doesn’t mean he needs to turn the film into a downer or a lesson about bike safety, but his characters should have the same freedom to be as off-kilter as Monday. The messengers may get a little scraped, but the action is always clean, the plot is tidy, and the package is missing the most important item: a reason why we should care about the people rather than their bicycles.
Rating: 6.4 out of 10