Premium Rush

Have I got the ticket for you!

It’s been a good year for biking.  Cyclist Rachel Vaziralli (an acquaintance) holds the current throne on the internet’s search for the next American fitness star, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon find themselves in a movie that glorifies cycling.  We never see Shannon on a bike, but considering his role in this film, no foul.

The story of Premium Rush resembles the type of narrative presented in Vantage Point or the TV series LOST: we begin by focusing on one character who seems to be the game’s main player, but we are then thrust back and forth in time in order to experience the story according to other characters who may have seemed, at the outset, less than vital.  The film uses this structure to tell a relatively formulaic MacGuffin story revolving around a mysterious envelope holding an object only ever referred to as “the ticket.”  Everyone wants the ticket; that is, everyone except the one carrying it in his pack – Wilee (Gordon-Levitt), a bicycle messenger who has very much the same take on bikes that I do on cars: an old one is trustier despite the cost of the inevitable repairs.  Unlike a car, however, Wilee’s bike has no brakes; he claims that bicycle brakes contributed to the greatest injury he ever received (we’re spared, however, from this scene).  Wilee has been dispatched to deliver the ticket for Nima (Jamie Chung), who happens to be the roommate of his girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez).  Relationships between the three are rocky.  Nima wants Vanessa to move out on short notice; we don’t know why.  Vanessa is considering breaking up with Wilee; we don’t know why.  Wilee suspects that the package contains “drug stuff” and doesn’t trust Nima.  He’s delivering the package as usual when he is accosted by Bobby Monday (Shannon), a dirty cop with a gambling problem and a name from 1990.  Monday almost gets Wilee to fork over the package, but his temper gets the best of him and Wilee decides to continue with the delivery.

What follows is a cat-and-mouse game around Manhattan, and the outcome depends fully upon allegiances.  The aid of Mr. Leung (Henry O), a Chinese money launderer with a team of enforcers, could tip the scale in anyone’s direction, but he and his right hand man (Kin Shing Wong), a completely silent (and classically inscrutable) man who does nothing but play Sudoku, remain relatively impartial in spite of the money owed to him by Monday.  The cops, aggravated by the consistently reckless bikers and unaware of Monday’s dastardly nature, remain an obstacle from beginning to end.  Fellow bike messenger Manny (Wolé Parks) should be on Wilee’s side, but antagonizes him due to non-reciprocated feelings for Vanessa.  We know the key to the ticket reaching its destination for its intended reason (which ends up being a little deeper than we may need to go in a film so light) is to achieve full cooperation between Wilee, Vanessa, and Nima, but to get there, the three of them need to come to an understanding while two-thirds of the equation is speeding through New York City traffic at speeds I’d rather not even consider.

Even better than the film’s structure is its tendency to map out Wilee’s decision-making process when he’s in danger: years of biking through Manhattan have seemingly given him a sort of sixth sense about where taxi cabs, pedestrians, UPS trucks, and any number of other hazards will be in relation to him when he reaches a bustling intersection.  These parts of the film are quick and happen often enough that they seem unique to the film but not often enough to bore or overwhelm an audience; filmmakers too often fall into the Trap of the Clever Trick, mistaking novelty for genius.

Michael Shannon makes an interesting switch to a villainous maniac after giving 2011’s best male performance in Take Shelter, but it’s a good warmup if you’re following Shannon’s work this year, because he’ll soon be appearing in The Iceman as infamous contract killer Richard Kuklinski and as the villain in the newest iteration of the Superman franchise.  Gordon-Levitt is having an eventful year as well, appearing in four films (including Spielberg’s Lincoln, which, if the Academy is as predictable as ever, will be in the running for Best Picture – sad that we know that before the film is even made).  Ramirez makes an effective heroine, and though the film’s characters only allow us to know them on the surface, she does a fantastic job of ensuring us that she’s acting on what she thinks is right, not out of obligation.  Also appearing in the film are Aasif Mandvi (in one of his better performances) as Wilee and Vanessa’s dispatcher, and Lauren Ashley Carter in a mostly-background role as the dispatcher’s assistant, Phoebe.  Despite her scarce screen time and involvement, she stands out.  Anthony Chisholm appears as Tito, a veteran messenger described as being “like ninety-eight years old,” and who brings back fond memories of Peter Boyle as the grizzled old “Wizard” in Taxi Driver.

With its speedy, decently-written dialogue, the film gives its actors a chance to deepen the characters through conversation, (somewhat) filling the hole opened by lack of background information.  Oddly, though, the hole doesn’t take away from the enjoyment or really distract much at all, as long as you’re willing to accept the fact that none of the characters are going to surprise you by the end.

Ultimately, Premium Rush is a good summer post-blockbuster whose existence is justified by the fact that, unlike ninety percent of the blockbusters I see, the screenwriters seem like they’ve actually written a screenplay before (don’t take that as too high a compliment, but it is a compliment).  The most difficult part of this film?  Trying to maintain the speed limit while driving home afterward.

Premium Rush (2012); written and directed by David Koepp; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, and Lauren Ashley Carter.

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