PREMIUM RUSH (Dir. David Koepp, 2012)
We first meet Joseph Gordon-Levitt in mid-air as he falls in slow motion off his bicycle to the opening synth progression of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” in the first minute of this thriller.
We don’t learn how this accident came about until later in the movie, because this is one of those fractured narratives that backs up in time, moves forward, then back again, sometimes through the same scenes, but from other perspectives, with an onscreen clock popping up to let us know where we’re at.
It’s a gimmicky and self-consciously flashy approach, but it weaves as swiftly through the film as Gordon-Levitt does through the streets of Manhattan as a bike-messenger who just might have a death-wish, as his co-workers note.
You see, Gordon-Levitt, who dropped out from Columbia University's law school, doesn’t believe in brakes, and has fixed gears on his beat-up bike. His mind seems only set to quickly figure out the best route through traffic and pedestrians so we get to see his imagined scenarios for the disastrous routes he decides against, which is pretty neat. As are full screen shots of Gordon-Levitt’s GPS system, and CGI projections of the cityscape that show thick yellow lines representing his path.
Our hero’s dangerous job gets even more life threatening when he picks up an envelope that contains something that a corrupt cop (Michael Shannon) is after. This MacGuffin propels the big compelling cat and mouse game that is PREMIUM RUSH, an experience that’s engaging enough that one can ignore lame lines (Shannon actually yells: “Aw, come on! Give it to me!”), and a few overly contrived set-pieces.
None of that gets in the way of the fun. There’s spirited energy in the stunt-work (Gordon-Levitt did some of his own stunts - one of which led to a bust-up with a taxi), the sharp cinematography of the streets (shot by Mitchell Amundsen), and the largely likable casting, including Dania Ramirez as Gordon-Levitt’s tough girlfriend, Wolé Parks as his rival who's trying to woo Ramirez, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi as a wise-cracking dispatch, and Jamie Chung as a scared young Chinese woman who’s wrapped up with whatever’s in that mysterious envelope.
Gordon-Levitt carries the movie with confidence, but in Shannon as the villain we just might have the best comic performance of the summer. I’m serious - his turn as the twisted sociopathic gambling-addicted cop chasing Gordon-Levitt is hilarious with his squeaky maniacal laugh, and cranky complaints about his pained predicaments. Shannon’s funnier than either Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis in THE CAMPAIGN, or nearly any other character in a recent comedy that I can think of. He obviously had a blast playing the part, and it's a blast to watch him steal every scene he's in.
The as-silly-as-it-is-thrilling PREMIUM RUSH isn’t premium entertainment, but it’s a good fast-paced piece of escapism for the late summer. When it cuts to a video clip of Gordon-Levitt taken right after he really smashed into the back window of a taxi during the end credits, you can see that even in injury they were laughing about it and having a great time. For a considerable amount of its 91-minute running time, I was too.