As anyone who lives or works in New York City can attest, "Premium Rush" was a huge pain in the ass. When the movie was filming here, in the summer of 2010, they closed major streets and intersections in the artful pursuit of watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt (or an uncanny stunt double) convincingly zip through the urban canyons of the big, bad city. (Somewhere, George Lucas is watching this movie and thinking about how he could have done it in three weeks on a blank soundstage in some desolate corner of Australia.)
But I won't let the movie's "you can't cross here" annoyingness come in the way of this review, as we look at both the pros and cons of this long-delayed Joseph Gordon Levitt thriller, in which he plays a bike messenger tasked with a very, very important delivery. You'll never guess what delivery option they choose… Oh, okay, it's premium rush!
PRO: Joseph-Gordon Levitt
Anyone disappointed by his rigidly milquetoast performance in "The Dark Knight Rises" should be impressed by his turn in "Premium Rush," which showcases his impish charm and agreeable physicality. As a bike messenger handed a nearly
impossible task, he does a great job of making forceful determination not seem horribly annoying.
PRO: Michael Shannon, Scene Stealer
It's no shock that Michael Shannon -- given the somewhat underwritten role as the villain, a nebbish NYPD detective who becomes embroiled in the underground world of Chinese gambling (wait what?) -- would totally kill it. He's a superlative actor who has shown his chops in riveting indies like last year's "Take Shelter." But it might be even more impressive that he brings such unbridled intensity to a role that could have been phoned in, across the country, from Christopher Walken if push came to shove. Shannon's character accidentally kicks a guy to death, is appalled by the language used in prime time television and, despite frequently menacing JGL's adorable bike messenger girlfriend (played by Dania Ramirez) seems oddly asexual. It's a profoundly weird performance slapped in the middle of a fairly conventional thriller, which makes me love it even more.
CON: The rest of the bike messengers
At the outset it looks like "Premium Rush" might be a little bit like "Magic Mike," taking us into a very specific cultural subset. However, instead of male strippers we're drawn into the world of bike messengers, a group that we don't know much about besides when they almost run us over at the crosswalk. The other bike messengers in this movie don't get much personality or dialogue. They remain, just like in real life, a fuzzy blur.
PRO: How '80s it is
"Premium Rush" is probably defined by its singular peppiness. The movie, well, moves really well, especially when toggling between different time lines. It's got a kind of cheery, heart-on-its-sleeves optimism that reminds us of certain
movies from the '80s (its amped-up color palette also plays into this). If John Hughes wanted to do a thriller about bike messengers, it would probably look (and feel) a lot like "Premium Rush." Often things just kind of happen (like the same NYPD bike cop encountering our hero) and you just go with it. We just wish they had pushed things a little bit further. You know, like "Drive" except without the head smashing.
CON: How convoluted it is
For a movie with a relatively simplistic plot -- bike messenger gets handed a very important MacGuffin that the rest of the characters try to snatch from him for the rest of the movie -- "Premium Rush" is often bogged down by tangential plot threads that weigh the movie down and threaten to derail it altogether. This includes not one but two groups of Chinese gangsters, a brief treatise on the plight of illegal immigrants, several prolonged flashbacks (which aren't exactly terrible but still add unnecessary knots), a Sodoku-loving hitman and Jamie Chung doing a really questionable accent. Good grief. Just ride the damn bike.
PRO: The graphics
Right from the get-go, "Premium Rush" propels itself forward. Helping things along are the movie's graphics, which range from a kind of caffeinated Google Maps rendering of Manhattan, to zigzagging lines that our hero sees when he visualizes his different routes (these visualizations often end with him getting horribly killed -- both more violent and hilarious than you would expect). The visual flourishes are as practical as they are impressive, as they often help to orient the audience (and especially those non-NYC-ers) as to where, exactly, the action is taking place and how far he has to go to get there. The ticking clock, which shows us how long Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to deliver his important package, also ends up being an essential plot device, as it indicates when the movie will flash back to some previously unseen section of the narrative.
PRO: The Sleigh Bells cameo
Hey, is that gnarly pop-punk duo, seen fleetingly in the back of the bike messenger bar, actually gnarly pop-punk duo Sleigh Bells? Why, yes it is! They're geniuses and, as anyone who has seen their music videos or performance on "SNL" can attest, have a totally great look. That's pretty cool that they're in the movie!
CON: Not enough Sleigh Bells
We thought that since we only saw them for a hot minute in the actual movie, that we might HEAR them later in the movie. The band's music, which kind of sounds like the audio equivalent of a chainsaw tearing through bone marrow (but, you know, danceable), would have been perfect for one of the high speed chases. Sadly, it was not meant to be.