Friday, August 24, 2012

Premium Rush: Quite a ride!

Premium Rush (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, intense action and occasional profanity
By Derrick Bang

Summer isn’t quite over, but I still feel comfortable calling this the season’s nicest surprise.

Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) prides himself on being the best of an
elite daredevil breed: hell-for-leather New York City bicycle messengers.
But even Wilee finds his skills taxed when one particular delivery
prompts pursuit by a clearly unhinged fellow ... whose behavior
becomes progressively more dangerous.
Premium Rush is a marvelous little action flick: cleverly plotted, capably acted and suspensefully edited. I also admire director/co-scripter David Koepp’s attitude: He shares my belief that most modern movies are too long, and his peppy thriller clocks in at a just-right 91 minutes. Koepp and editors Derek Ambrosi and Jill Savitt keep the action taut and inventive.

This is great edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Koepp and co-writer John Kamps also are the first filmmakers to properly exploit a fascinating sub-culture — New York City bicycle messengers — and they do so with considerable panache. This storyline also demands a whole new range of stunt work, much of it eye-popping.

Premium Rush certainly isn’t the first film to employ bicycle stunt work — 1983’s otherwise laughable BMX Bandits (with a young Nicole Kidman!) comes to mind — but this film delivers two-wheeled tricks that’ll drop your jaw to the floor.

Credit stuntman Victor Paguia, trick cyclists Danny MacAskill and Tom La Marche, and an authentic bike messenger dubbed Austin Horse. But credit, as well, goes to the film’s three primary riding stars, each of whom looks every inch the part, from buff bods to heavy, sweat-oiled exertion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dania Ramirez and Wolé Parks must’ve worked their butts off during this shoot, and it shows.

Indeed, according to report, the fearless Gordon-Levitt finally had to be restrained from attempting some of the stunts himself. I’m willing to believe it; he sure seems to be doing the lion’s share of his character’s riding.

Although Koepp built his reputation with solid screenplays for big-budget blockbusters such as Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man, he’s equally fond of intimate, claustrophobic, character-driven thrillers; notable examples include Stir of Echoes, Secret Window and most particularly the superb Jodie Foster suspenser, Panic Room.

With Premium Rush, Koepp and Kamps deliver their version of the real-time thriller, which unfolds in a time frame roughly equal to how long we spend watching. The screenplay “cheats” a little, with a few flashbacks designed to explain the pell-mell events fueling the action, but that’s part of the fun; the flashbacks are inventively placed at just the right moments, building our emotional involvement each time we return to the story at hand.

The premise is simple: Veteran bicycle messenger Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) collects an envelope from a client late one afternoon. It absolutely must-must-must be delivered not one second later than 7 p.m. No sweat, he cheerfully insists; that’s plenty of time.

Or not.

Wilee, a thrill-seeker who abandoned law school because he couldn’t see himself in a suit, seated behind a desk, has developed a daredevil reputation as the best of New York’s agile and aggressive bicycle messengers. He operates by a personal mantra — “Fixed gear, steel frame, no brakes!” — that refers to his “fixie,” a lightweight, single-gear bike that he navigates with shuddery, split-second timing through traffic, pedestrians and unexpected hazards such as improperly dumped garbage.

Brakes are dangerous, he insists, relying instead on “skid stops,” as he slides the rear wheel sideways in order to slow down.

Wilee works for Security Courier, a messenger service whose fellow riders include on again/off again girlfriend Vanessa (Ramirez), along with Manny (Parks), a flashy show-boater who uses an expensive, multi-geared bicycle that’s the antithesis of Wilee’s stripped-down philosophy. Manny’s also making a play for Vanessa, which doesn’t endear him to our hero.

Things kick into gear when a young woman named Nima (Jamie Chung) contacts Security Courier with her insistence on swift delivery, and then hands Wilee the aforementioned envelope. Moments later, Wilee is accosted by an agitated guy — Michael Shannon, as Bobby Monday — who demands the envelope. He even bolsters this request by waving the receipt just handed to Nima, which raises Wilee’s eyebrows ... and his cautionary radar.

Nothing doing, Wilee insists, referencing the “security” in his company’s name. He takes off; Monday hops into a car, and the chase is on. Merely the first chase, as it turns out; Wilee can’t imagine what this guy’s problem is, and the easily enraged Monday’s pursuit becomes ever more aggressively frantic.

What the heck is going on?

I don’t want to answer any such questions, because you deserve the pleasure of finding out in the way Koepp and Kamps choose to dole out the salient bits of back-story. Initially, unlikely coincidence seems to stretch credibility to a troublesome degree, but be patient; all eventually becomes clear, with each piece interlocking quite neatly.

Similarly, our first exposure to Monday makes Shannon look guilty of outrageous over-acting; the guy practically foams at the mouth. But even this overstated behavior makes sense in light of details eventually revealed.

Our other primary characters are sketched somewhat superficially, but that’s all right; we learn everything we need to know. Gordon-Levitt is absolutely convincing as a free spirit who lives and breathes the joys of his adrenalin-fueled job, and Wilee’s prickly bond with Vanessa feels just right for a guy trying to win back the woman he loves.

Ramirez makes Vanessa appropriate spunky; we catch her on a day when her pride has been stung, because Wilee failed to acknowledge an important event in her life. It’s a thoughtless oversight, and he cops to it, but we sense a possible string of such lapses, and thus wonder whether this might be the one that severs the relationship. That adds a layer of interpersonal angst to the grimmer core narrative.

Parks makes Manny an appropriately self-centered jerk: high on himself and little else, and always seeking a means to one-up his Security Courier colleagues (not necessarily inappropriate behavior, in this competitive environment). Stuntman Christopher Place rises above his profession’s usual anonymity for a credited — and quite engaging — role as an NYPD bike cop who grows ever more determined to catch and arrest Wilee.

Aside from the script’s clever narrative elements, Koepp also makes excellent use of modern technology. Wilee and Vanessa rarely converse at rest; they’re invariably chatting using smart phones and ear buds while zipping through traffic. Wilee calculates his routes via satellite map displays — and we’re able to see these decisions — although he also generally knows how best to get from points A to B.

Niftiest of all, though, is Wilee’s acute “bike vision,” a CGI-enhanced representation of his thought process, as he observes an upcoming tight spot and considers the options for finding the best path out of pending trouble. It’s a marvelous means of entering the character’s head, and sharing his split-second decisions as he instinctively anticipates a miraculous means of escaping injury, or causing an accident, or colliding with a pedestrian.

Cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen’s bicycle- and street-level camerawork is its own bonus: a series of breathtaking images and razor’s-edge escapes that come so quickly and frequently, that you’ll often forget to breathe.

Koepp’s film is very well named; it is a rush. It’s also the sort of exhilarating thrill that’ll send you flying from the theater, in order to shred the neighborhood on your own bike.

But be advised: These stunts definitely shouldn’t be mimicked at home!

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