'Premium Rush' Pedals at Full Speed
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
"Premium Rush" opens on a helmeted bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) flying slo-mo across the screen, a long-legged bird against the sky. How daredevil biker Wilee (as in Coyote) came to be so dangerously and beautifully airborne requires backtracking through a thriller narrative packed with twists and turns to eventually fetch up where we began. Story line and style are as convoluted and full-throttle as Wilee's adrenalized navigation -- sans gears or brakes -- of Manhattan's crowded avenues and byways. Snatching you up in media res, "Rush" is like a shot of speed: It blasts your breath away, then gives you a ticket to ride a bullet bareback. Wilee's go-for-broke mantra is the movie's: "Can't stop. Don't want to, either."
Wilee's main squeeze and fellow bike messenger, buff and sexy Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), has dropped him after he blew off her college graduation for a bike race. So now Wilee's rival on the road, gorgeously muscled Manny ("Have you seen my thighs?"), played by Wolé Parks, is putting the moves on his lady. Wilee's a law school grad who can't be bothered to take the bar exam, a speed demon allergic to any form of sedentary life, of either the romantic or work variety. Man for all movie seasons Gordon-Levitt looks authentically high as he shoots urban rapids (actually cutting himself up -- 30 stitches' worth! -- in the process), and Wilee projects a hint of the grown-up he will become sooner rather than later. Thankfully, "Premium Rush" doesn't moralize (and banalize) pureblood action by making Wilee's excellent adventure the catalyst for trading in his bike for a desk job.
Meanwhile, psycho cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) loses big while gambling compulsively, getting in so deep with killer loan sharks that he's forced to head uptown to steal a mysterious "ticket" that's legal tender for a lot of loot. Guess who's messengering that ticket down the island to Sister Chen in Chinatown?
As a dirty cop, Shannon continues to astonish. Monday might be a direct descendant of "Boardwalk Empire"'s Agent Nelson Van Alden, but this latter-day psychopath sports the smiley face of the Joker, the kind of reasonable dementia that eyeballs the world entirely in terms of his immediate desires and needs. He's kinda fun until he bites your face off.
Fellow bike messengers, a crazed detective and a doofus bicycle cop are all attached to ticket-delivering Wilee by perfectly serviceable plotlines. (Not forgetting Vanessa's roommate Nima, played by Jamie Chung, who sets off the whole mad, mad race.) Thing is, writer-director David Koepp doesn't dwell on backstories any more than is necessary to trigger kinetic choreography all over town. Koepp has written movies for Steven Spielberg, including "Jurassic Park," and he's learned a thing or two about setting wild-hair motion loose in constricted spaces, the kind of gymnastic action that inspires surges of visceral terror and exhilaration.
Think of Manhattan as Jurassic Park, a city of canyons and plains full of lumbering buses, swerving cabs, 8 million heedless nomads. Bike messengers dart through narrow openings between behemoths, their velocity and grace as lethal as velociraptors, hungry eyes locked on the prize, the racing biker's drop-off point -- or in this case, a piece of paper that will buy a Chinese child's freedom, or opportunity for a psycho cop to speed up his slide into hell.
When Wilee's caught in a traffic contretemps, his eyes swiftly suss out various scenarios, a swooping white ribbon -- on-the-ground GPS -- literally mapping alternate routes and results. We take in this intel as fast as he does, since we often ride behind his POV, and believe me, your heart's in your throat as giggling Wilee punches brakeless through unforgiving traffic jams.
"Rush" virtually offers a tour of Manhattan, zooming through familiar streets and locales. Periodically, the camera swoops up over the whole island, to show a yellow bike route snaking through city streets -- and swoops down again to catch up with Shannon gunning his car at Wilee's bike, in hot pursuit of velociraptor already half-evolved into bird; or to hitch a ride with Wilee as he races rival Manny through Central Park's narrow paths.
Don't mistake me: "Premium Rush" isn't mindless mayhem, a thriller for teenage boys bursting with hormonal bloodlust. Koepp's film has a brain; it celebrates muscular kinesis -- just not of the superhero variety, where bones never break, and blood never flows (96 percent of "Rush" was done sans CGI). One of Koepp's screenplays was "Spider-Man," and Wilee and his posse are closer to sharing Peter Parker's brand of super skills, given to conquering the recalcitrant hardness of concrete and steel with outrageous human grace.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.