I got so sick of suffering grumbled comparisons between Premium Rush and Quicksilver that I resorted to watching the 1986 Kevin Bacon film. Let’s just say there’s a reason Bacon refers to his role as Jack Casey, stockbroker turned San Francisco bike messenger, as the low point of his career. Quicksilver is godawful — dated, boring, meandering and pointless. Not even Bacon’s epic prepubescent mustache and one insanely silly dance-off render it watchable beyond the first 20 minutes. It’s a miracle anyone even remembers the film enough to liken its concept to any current release.
Premium Rush, if you’re still seeking a parallel, is basically Citizen Kane in comparison. Beyond the professions of their lead characters (and one bike race through Central Park that bears a striking resemblance to Quicksilver‘s Laurence Fishburne/Kevin Bacon showdown), the similarities are blessedly few. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Premium Rush‘s protagonist, an adrenaline-junkie bike messenger named Wilee who’s charged with delivering a mysterious high-priority package from one end of Manhattan to the other. He’s intercepted by dirty cop Detective Robert Monday (Michael Shannon), seeking to get his hands on its contents for personal gain, and the cat-and-mouse chase reels in Wilee’s ex-girlfriend, fellow courier Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), along with other colleagues.
Despite popping wheelies around its thematic predecessor, Premium Rush skids a bit short on story. Its tone is confused – genuine fun at times, flat-out silly at others, with moments dabbling in surprisingly somber severity. Although it’s pretty clear the film is meant to be tongue-in-cheek (thanks, in large part, to the magnificent Shannon’s positively epic, unhinged performance as the film’s villain), you may be left scratching your head as to how co-writer and director David Koepp intended you to react to the movie as a whole.
If you’ve seen the Premium Rush trailers, you get a pretty decent idea of this, as they’re something of a litmus test for the audience: Most laugh hysterically at the flat-out wackiness of it, while others attempt to view it as a frenetically paced action thriller. If you’re of the former persuasion, you’ll undoubtedly have a much better time with Premium Rush. It still attempts to hit a bit of both notes, to be sure, mostly due to its non-linear storytelling and highly stylized editing. Time cards are punched with booming sound effects (the film takes place over a span of roughly four hours), stories are interwoven, jumping back and forth in sequence, New York’s cityscape is fast-zoomed into and out of from skyward, map-like vantage points, and — certainly most striking — Wilee is bestowed with something of a street-navigating Spidey Sense (we see fast-forwards of multiple possible routes through crowded streets, garnering any number of hilariously perilous outcomes, before he lands on a chosen direction).
Where the stylistic choices are hit or miss at times, the technical prowess of the film is undeniably great. The point-of-view shooting style, emphasis on traditional stunt work and creative camera angles (spoke-level cameras attached to bike wheels and the street-level shots from the sides of cars) give a gritty, real-world feel to the material. Also refreshing is that this isn’t just another purported “New York” movie clearly shot on a sound stage, back lot or on location in Toronto; the city topography makes sense (this coming from a native New Yorker). The only moments when logic falters are due to clunky script conventions — manipulations to lead characters into a given spot, or to drive action to the next scene.
Which leads to the fact that, yes, all of this visual zaniness mixed with realism is certainly something to behold, but the story is so scant that it becomes clear pretty early on that the editing and photographic creativity is making up for a lack of material — unnecessarily complicating a very simple premise to the point of frustration, adding action sequences that are at times quite impressive, at others wholly unnecessary. Despite clocking in at a thrifty 105 minutes, the movie lags. And the dialogue, even delivered by the learned likes of Gordon-Levitt and Shannon, is tough to swallow. There are countless scenes that leave you wondering about a character’s motivations or puzzling over how a person knew where to be, only for a contrived reveal to pan out moments later. And the writing is wrought with expositional prose, at times, needlessly reiterating points countless times over via different characters, or dropping in scenes clearly created simply for the purveying of information. To boot, the romantic interludes and arguments between Wilee and Vanessa are annoying at best — a half-baked excuse to give weight to the film’s players.
But despite all of these frustrations — brushed aside to varying degrees, depending on your tolerance for cheesy fun and your threshold for senseless plot devises — there is one thing that makes Premium Rush a contender for the price of admission: Michael Shannon’s performance. It’s almost not worth giving anything away; he’s so utterly insane and borderline ridiculous that any indication of how or why would ruin the fun. He’s the comical, cartoonish bad guy you’re accustomed to seeing in early-’90s action films – the half-threatening, half-hokey antagonist who chases our heroes, yelling, “Come back here, you!” while shaking his fists and emitting breathy sighs. He even has a character-specific giggle. To boot, there’s a diatribe featuring his lamentations about the words “douchebag” and “suck it.” Gordon-Levitt does his best with the generally one-note Wilee. There’s an action-hero bent to his very physical performance, and it’s refreshing to see yet another facet to an already richly accomplished actor. But even these two strong performers can’t legitimize the script beyond surface level laughs and momentary adrenaline spikes.
If you’re willing to throw rationale to the wind, prepared for a scant storyline and game for one truly hilarious villain performance, Premium Rush could be for you. Most will find, though, that it spins its wheels attempting to flesh out a short-worthy premise into a feature film. Bottom line: the movie’s rush is more moderate than premium.
Premium Rush opens today nationwide.