By Carl Kozlowski
There’s a sense of excitement that comes from watching a young actor on the verge of superstardom. These days, that particular level of attention seems to be focused on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s gone from playing a teenage alien on Third Rock from the Sun to landing key roles in such top-notch films as (500) Days of Summer, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises.
Now he’s taking center stage in his own potential smash hit, Premium Rush. As a daredevil New York City bike messenger named Wilee, he recklessly races through the Big Apple’s streets on a bike whose brakes he has dismantled, relying only on his keen ability to predict traffic flows and avoid an endless array of obstacles for his survival.
But on the day in which the film takes place, in inventively staged “real time” (meaning each minute on screen corresponds to the time in the film’s reality), Wilee is in even more danger than usual. He has picked up an envelope from a female Chinese student at a university and been given explicit instructions to get it across town in 93 minutes.
Just as he is about to start a mad dash across the city, a corrupt cop named Bobby (Michael Shannon) runs up to Wilee and insists he hand over the envelope. Wilee is suspicious of the cop’s story and takes off without giving up the goods—only to find himself pursued to deadly yet often comical extremes by Bobby and a large assortment of New York City’s finest.
At the same time, Wilee is in the process of trying to win back his girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who is threatening to leave him for a fellow messenger because she’s ready to get serious with her life and believes he is dodging corporate responsibility. But as Wilee comes to realize what’s in the envelope he’s carrying and why the cop will even kill for it, the time to “man up” is forced upon him.
The plot of Premium Rush is fairly simple, the epitome of the kind of one-sentence description that Hollywood loves to call “high concept.” But the level of skill that co-writer (with director David Koepp, writer of Carlito’s Way, Jurassic Park and about 20 other modern smashes) brings to the film elevates it to a much higher level than one might expect.
Koepp’s ace choice in casting Gordon-Levitt and Shannon as action-film enemies is brilliant, bringing together two indie-film A-listers into what would normally be seen as a paycheck project. The duo’s unpredictable acting choices add vibrant energy to the mix, with Shannon, in particular, bringing great fun with a combination of menace and mirth.
But Koepp also infuses a unique flair into the film’s fast-paced visuals, bringing viewers into the mindset of Wilee as he plots his outrageous course through the city’s streets. The highlight of these sequences is when Wilee imagines the consequences of wrong moves leading to outrageously funny crashes.
Best of all, though, is the underlying heart of the story, found in the twist about what’s actually inside the envelope Wilee is delivering. Koepp fearlessly yet subtly addresses a global injustice in a moving and realistic fashion that will hit home with viewers and give them something to think about amid the sensory overload.
Coming at the end of summer, it seemed likely that Premium Rush would be worth passing up at the theater. But with all the elements combining for a thrilling time at the theater, here’s hoping people will rush into screenings instead.