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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The Bourne Legacy

Nobody makes it over the mountain

The Bourne Legacy is a better film than the trailers may let on.  In fact, it’s a good deal better than either Supremacy or Ultimatum,wherein Matt Damon ran from one obscure European locale to another to escape something, presumably the contrived writing that resulted in the unforgivable demise of his romantic partner (Franka Potente) after the sweet and satisfying ending of the original film (which, for the record, also resulted in Damon claiming there wouldn’t be another Bourne film – just sayin’) as well as the inexplicable casting of Karl Urban as a Russian killing machine whom Bourne can’t bring himself to finish off even to avenge his girlfriend, adopting an attitude not so different from Bruce Wayne’s in The Dark Knight Rises, which materializes over and over again in the tiring finale of the trilogy.  Things went differently than I’d anticipated this time.

Legacy‘s Boring Hero is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the nine super-soldiers in the same program as Bourne – Blackbriar, Treadstone, Outcome, one of those.  There’s a lot of nonsensical jargon between the CIA characters, present only to make the film seem heady and important, but since this is a summer blockbuster, it can’t be too overbearing and the audience’s understanding of every detail doesn’t much matter (including memories of the original trilogy, since Damon’s character is only mentioned twice and wasn’t acquainted with Cross).  The film begins with Cross climbing over a snow-scalped mountain and attempting to survive travel through a winter-bitten forest while a pack of wolves follows him; his reasons for being in the wild are never completely explained, but he soon meets a character credited as Number Three, played by Oscar Isaac, probably pound-for-pound the film’s best actor despite being even more underused than he was in Refn’s Drive from last year.  Number Three is an operative also in the program, and Cross, who has lost his supply of the medicine on which his kind depend for physical ability and mental clarity, seeks help.  Unbeknownst to either of them, however, the CIA has decided to shut down its black ops programs after the Jason Bourne debacle, and begins eliminating its field agents one by one by way of a dubious operation led by Eric Byer (Edward Norton).  This is Aaron Cross’s cue to continue Bourne’s tradition of running away from stuff for two hours.

But wait.  The film stars an effective deuteragonist named Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor who researches and administers the program’s meds without any knowledge of what her subjects (people like Bourne and Cross) actually do.  Unfortunately, part of the CIA’s initiative is to eliminate doctors like Shearing along with the agents they medicate, and one of her coworkers, Dr. Foite (Zeljko Ivanek, to whom I frequently refer as “The Canadian” after his In Bruges character), goes berserk (likely under the CIA’s orders) and executes everyone in the lab in an effectively harrowing display of violence.  After a great scene in which a CIA “psychiatrist” comes to Shearing’s house to finish the job, Shearing meets up with Cross and they travel to the manufacturer of the program’s meds (arbitrarily located in the Philippines), where Shearing will be able to relieve Cross of his drug dependency for good.

To the film’s detriment is the juxtaposition between fake-brainy dialogue and pure spoken exposition.  When a character we’ve never seen before panics about the situation, another answers, “You’re the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.  Act like it!”  These scenes are wedged between the important ones, which feature the thinly-developed relationship between Cross and Shearing, saved by Weisz’s superb dramatic acting and Renner’s occasional attempts to appear as though he gives a damn.  Everything in between is overwritten and the numerous CIA characters wear out their welcome and usefulness very early on, and putting the effort into keeping track of who they are results in very little payoff (personally, I couldn’t shake how much one of them looked like Rush Limbaugh).  There are confusing jump-cuts during fight scenes (such that which arms and legs belong to whom becomes a bit of a mystery) and the shaky-cam technique is consistent with the most dizzying cinematography from the originals.

But wait!  The movie uses supporting characters (aside from Isaac) well, and the colorful queue of assassins who comes after Cross and Shearing brings back pleasant memories of The Bourne Identity, wherein a pre-stardom Clive Owen played a ruthless killer called The Professor, who has become a fan favorite of the series.  The denouement includes a tender (but non-romantic) scene between Cross and Shearing in which Cross becomes a protagonist we can actually root for, and the extended chase climax with Cross’s final foil, an operative from a rival program called LARX (Louis Ozawa Changchien) is thoroughly exciting and has an ending perfect enough that I forgave the more preposterous motorcycle antics.

The Bourne Legacy serves the same purpose as the fourth Pirates of the Carribbean film did: a final breath/second wind for a franchise bloated by Hollywood execs and studio overwriting.  This is a rare case, though, in which the breath is actually satisfying.  Renner’s character is less boring and loud and confused than Damon’s, and a tough, intelligent woman participates in the action (not to mention saves Cross’s life multiple times).  Ed Norton’s one-note government villain wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t for his own versatility as an actor: look at his performance as the lovely, sympathetic scout leader in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, also from this summer’s lineup.

The film has a definite ending.  Our heroes are safe, Cross seems to stop thinking long enough to relax, and the credits roll over a refreshing shot of a sparkling harbor.  The final scene offers a sequel possibility, but it doesn’t much feel like it wants or needs one.  As the true spiritual successor of the first Bourne film, Legacy truly feels like a bookend; any more and you’re just spilling ink on the back cover.

The Bourne Legacy (2012); written and directed by Tony Gilroy; inspired by Robert Ludlum’s novels; starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Wiesz, and Edward Norton.

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