Joseph Gordon-Levitt can do no wrong. No wrong.
Premium Rush is a bit of a trifle, really. It’s a completely fun, enjoyable little movie that introduces some novel elements, some well-used narrative cheats, and a concise and twisty story that more or less takes place over 2 hours of the movie’s time and 90 minutes of ours. The anchor to all this is the superlative-hoarding Joseph Gordon-Levitt who now fills me with a superstitious awe and terror whenever I write about him. If he and Ryan Gosling ever team up, I’m just going to die.
Preposterous if you try to take it seriously as a movie about the reality of being a bicycle courier, Premium Rush wears its movie-dumb like a badge of honor and doesn’t even try to be authentic. Rather, it is an idealized version of courier culture and the ethos that drives it. I’m sure that if Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) is archetypal then the resident Wilee’s at courier companies are far from the slick, cool as fuck heroes that a movie allows him/they to be. Wilee rides fast with no breaks, paying lip service to Buddhist and Zen principles while abhorring the office-slaved lifestyle of his peers. This, at least, feels like a reflection of how anarchist bike couriers might actually feel. In the movie, they are a pack of (mostly) young people loosely affiliated and bound up in their own pocket culture of rules, rivalries, and philosophy which separates them from the mainstream even more than their unpopular antics. At one point, Michael Shannon’s weirdly likable villain, Bobby Monday (cleverly named), even declares that “New York hates you people” which is probably one of the few concessions to reality that Premium Rush is inclined to make.
Likable may not be the right word. Watchable fits better.
If you haven’t gathered by now, I really liked this movie. I liked it’s audacious brand of dumb because I know lack of fucks given when I see it. David Koepp and cowriter John Kamps are fully aware that they are not making a gritty, authentic thriller. Rather, they are performing parts of the Hero’s Journey via bicycle couriers. Unlike the legion McEpics that use Campbell as a blueprint to lazily string together high-concept sets and action sequences, a lot of thought probably went into how Wilee’s day veers into the steps like Refusing the Call or whatever. The result is that this is one of the more interesting parts of the movie and a fresh way to use tired ol’ Joey Campbell.
Also fresh is that this is bicycle couriers at all. There are tons of thrillers about lawyers, even many about punk kids living on the margins. I can’t name another thriller about couriers. That alone makes Premium Rush feel fresh even as it relies (overly?) on chases, glib references to outsider culture, and a sense of geography that is ludicrously contrived. One of the running jokes in the movie is actually a series of subordinate running jokes where the same characters keep bumping into each other in the same (huge) area of NYC. It only works because the movie doesn’t give a shit about trying to make this believable. This is just the kind of day Wilee is having and he’s too nice a guy to turn around and go home when the chips are down, especially when he finds out what’s really going on and why he got this delivery that’s caused him all the trouble that makes this movie.
This movie is preoccupied with China. A lot of that going around.
Because China is the new Eastern Europe/Russia, all things must somehow pertain to it. In Premium Rush, the package Wilee delivers is meant for an operative in some kind of underground Chinese people-importing ring. Young and nervous Nima (Jamie Chung) wants to bring her family in. At first, we have no idea who she is or why what she wants is important. We learn about it eventually, through judicious use of flashbacks that I’m sure will annoy some people. I found this storytelling gimmick breezy and appropriate for the movie. I don’t know if I would disagree if someone said they didn’t like it, but I would disagree that it’s choppy. The flashbacks are well-paced little pills of story that expand to give you details and insight wherever they are necessary and wherever there is a lull from the present of the story. I think tangents, which these almost are, can be wonderfully used to inject some energy when a fast-paced story needs a breather. So that’s why I think this stuff works.
Anyways. Nima needs Wilee because he’s the best. She knows him cuz her roommate is Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), his girlfriend. They are having problems because Wilee is still wheels-deep in the courier lifestyle and his own personal, adrenaline-junkie outlook. Vanessa, on the other hand, is starting to get into school and can see life past the age where a courier’s body/psyche has nothing left, a time to give it up. This is where I feared the movie was going to do that thing where you have a wild, edgy lifestyle and the message is inevitably one of conformity. Instead, Premium Rush revels in what Wilee can do and even Vanessa has to come around a bit. You get the sense that their fight was the kind of minor spat people have, not some big hinge on their whole relationship. Side-stepping the usual need for movies to cram as much life-altering conflict as possible is a nice move that grounds this pretty rambunctious story.
Gordon-Levitt is playing it a bit more alpha than most of his other roles and there is great chemistry between he and Ramirez.
The main complication for them is fucking Manny (Wole Parks) who is just the biggest asshole ever. But I can’t hate him. I can’t. He’s this gleaming, oily black handsomemachine who one of the movie’s NPC’s describes as “prettier than me”. While Wilee obviously dislikes Manny, after all the guy is actively trying to steal his girl and his rep as the best courier, he’s sort of cavalier about it. In fact, one of my complaints about the movie is they basically neuter this Nubian stag and forget that these two are bitter(ish) rivals. I wanted to see more conflict! More of Manny’s witty one-liners. He’s like a young Terry Crews and I need him in my life.
You need him too. His thighs, by God. I can see forever.
When I was watching the race between Manny and Wilee I lost track of what was going on because of wanting to be friends with Manny.
So about China.
Lately there’s been this Hollywood obsession with China. It could be that half the big budget movies now seem to be heavily funded by Chinese companies. It could be that China is the “other guy” that is often needed for movies like this. Or movies in general. While not as up in this shit as it was in Expendables 2, the Middle Kingdom is still all up in Premium Rush. I’m not sure what to make of it, really. I wouldn’t even comment if it weren’t so conspicuous. I’m also not sure what Premium Rush might be carrying in terms of cultural assumptions about China. For example, Nima wrote an article about Tibet that has caused problems for her in America. She can’t get her son because China won’t let her have him. China is the villain! But then there’s kindly old gangster Mr. Leung (Henry O) who resembles a turtle and helps Nima contact a “snakehead” (basically a Chinese coyote) to get her peeps all illegally immigrated. Mr. Leung’s assistant is Enormous Asian Man (that’s what he’s called in the credits on IMDB) who is actually a BAMF.
Enormous Asian Man fixes Bobby Monday’s impulse control problems with a gun and a phone book in what is a weirdly dark and terrifying scene for this movie (or any movie). Shannon plays Monday with scenery chewing, Harvey Keitelian panache (he could do this in his sleep, though) and it’s a beautiful thing until he dies. His death is vivid, shocking, and silly in the darkest way. He is shot in the head and therefore a dead man, only to realize it a few seconds later, long after the comfort level in the audience has plummeted and totally dislodged their preparation for a happy ending (which this has, I guess).
And that’s another thing that makes Premium Rush remarkable. The whole China thing. I mean Jesus. The main thing to learn from this movie is maybe to never fuck with any Chinese person ever.
Or cops who are degenerate gamblers, I guess.
So the reason why Wilee gets all wrapped up in this stuff is basically cuz he’s The Hero. But the movie also establishes him as a guy with a friendly fuck-off attitude to the law (take some Ritalin and take the BAR, a former classmate tells him) and with a big ol’ heart. His Refusing the Call moment happens after he’s been harassed up and down NYC and gives the package back. Desparate-guy Nima tells her tale so good-guy Wilee changes his mind and goes through major shit to help her. At one point he recovers a magical empowering artifact, a stunt bicycle, that gives him a +2 bonus against impound cops and a +1 bonus against Bobby Monday. There’s a throwaway line earlier in the movie about how Wilee doesn’t “do that trick shit anymore” but obviously he should keep it up because he is so good at that if he taught every protestor in NYC to do exactly this, no one would be unfairly pepper-sprayed ever again.
Finally, I must mention the other gimmick. Periodically, Wilee has Wileevision where he quickly calculates the outcome of possible routes before choosing the one that won’t get him dead. It’s fun because you get to watch a CG mummy of Gordon-Levitt get hit by a car over and over. It’s also fitting since Google Earth is pretty much a character in this movie and GPS is like Google Earth’s Lucy of Hadar or whatever. Because Wilee is the kind of courier who drives his bike into oncoming traffic because fuck Bobby Monday, he basically needs GPS in his head to manage. Does this make Premium Rush science fiction (?) is a question only future film scholars will have the hindsight to answer.
Vanessa and her nipples wreak vengeance on a cabbie’s rearview mirror, possibly causing accidental death or dismemberment later.
The anarchistic attitude of the movie is largely a put-on but occasionally, and perhaps accidentally, flirts with (philosophical) authenticity. This movie characterize New York City as basically this insane place where couriers have no regard for anyone’s safety and will actually make accidents MORE LIKELY by wapping off mirrors when cabbies get abusive toward them. This is the “get hit, hit back” sutra that Wilee explains while setting up the culture with which we’re going to be spending time. It’s sort of a fun and chaotic sense of NYC, more of a playground for disenfranchised youth to whom $50 is a lot of money. Usually, NYC is the playground of the rich and entitled and in best case, a place of romance. Premium Rush trades the romance of New York for the chaos and embraces it fully, making no apologies for siding with a culture that most people would fucking hate to have in their backyard. I doubt this was intentional but either way, Premium Rush is just a little bit subversive.
And I think that’s where I’ll stop as it seems I can jaw about this movie all day long. I’m not exactly sure why as it didn’t rock my world or anything. I mean, the main reason it’s interesting is that it should have been so bland and uninteresting. Instead, it has tons of interesting little moments, details, and stuff. Not necessarily the makings of a “good movie” but an interesting one for sure.
Well go see it, fast with no breaks.
Stay after the credits to watch JGL bleed real blood for your entertainment.