Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee
Michael Shannon as Bobby Monday
Dania Ramirez as Vanessa
Jamie Chung as Nima
Wolé Parks as Manny
Christopher Place as Bike Cop
Aasif Mandvi as Raj
Kymberly Perfetto as Polo
Anthony Chisholm as Tito
Kevin Bolger as Squid
Lauren Ashley Carter as Phoebe
Charles Borland as Campus Guard
Sebastian La Cause as Detective
Nick Damici as Detective
Kelvin Whui as Dealer
Henry Kwan as Lin’s Pai Gow Player
Keenan Leung as Lin’s Pai Gow Player
Wally Ng as Lin’s Pai Gow Player
Nancy Eng as Lin’s Pai Gow Player
Brian Koppelman as Loan Shark
Hoon Lee as Floor Manager
Jimmy P. Wong as Enormous Asian Man
Kenny Wong as Second Asian Man
Ruth Zhang as Nima’s Mom
Bojun Wang as Nima’s Son
Directed by David Koepp
Rebellious bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is having a rough day, compounded by problems with his girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). When he’s given the job to deliver an urgent letter downtown, he’s stopped by a guy named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) who wants the envelope for his own reasons, sending Wilee on a race through the city to make his deadline as the situation gets more intense.
Once you get past the shock that someone would finance an action-thriller based around New York bicycle messengers, you can gear yourself up for exactly what’s advertised from this rather odd departure for filmmaker David Koepp, who has written many big action blockbusters but never directed an action movie himself. Not that you can tell since “Premium Rush” is a serviceable high concept action-thriller that wins bonus points for originality.
We’re introduced to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Wilee, a sharp-tongued rebel amongst the city’s thousands of bike messengers, as he’s having a worse-than-normal day. In fact, when we meet him, he’s flying through the air after being hit by a car but the movie quickly goes back in time to earlier in the day when he was only having problems with his girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), another bike messenger that’s being pursued by Wilee’s irrepressible competition Manny (Wolé Parks). When Wilee’s offered a late-shift “premium rush” delivery, he bikes up to Columbia to pick up an envelope he has to deliver down to Chinatown, but he’s soon stopped by a large man played by Michael Shannon who wants the envelope.
From the beginning, we’re given the sense of camaraderie between New York’s thousands of bike messengers and that creates a great environment for the likable character of Wilee, who is always doing his own thing, even sporting some sort of “cyclist sense” to determine the best path in which to travel whenever he shoots out into traffic.
As a New Yorker, it’s hard not to be impressed by the way Koepp’s cameras follow the cyclists speeding through packed New York streets, and in order to keep it interesting, Koepp uses lots of cool visuals and graphics to show Wilee’s path through the streets, but rather than showing him on his bike for 90 minutes, the movie uses flashbacks to slowly reveal information about the contents of the envelope and show why everyone wants to get their hands on it. Since these scenes cut away from Wilee, they’re also not as interesting except to provide much-needed background information.
A lot of the movie involves Gordon-Levitt riding around on his bike communicating with other bike messengers using hands-free devices, which looks and feels sort of awkward, but that’s just a minor issue. The stunts are fun if you like that sort of thing, but there’s really only so many times you can watch Wilee and his fellow bike messengers and others slamming onto the hoods of oncoming cars in traffic.
On the other hand, “Premium Rush” gives Joseph Gordon-Levitt a chance to prove he can ground a studio action-thriller as the lead and he certainly handles the material (and his bicycle) in a credible way that bolsters the film’s balance of tension and humor. The make or break for most people who watch the movie will be Michael Shannon’s performance as the primary baddie Bobby Monday who is hot in pursuit of Wilee, as he really takes his normal scenery chewing to another level. To some, that might add to the humor and entertainment factor, but to others, it will just seem like Koepp let a strong actor like Shannon go a bit overboard. Another problem is Jamie Chung’s performance as Nima, the Asian girl who calls upon Wilee for help, and her fake broken English is so bad it’s verging on racism.
You can tell Koepp and co-writer John Kamps did their research when it comes not only to the lifestyle of bike messengers but also to the underlying subplot involving illegal Chinese immigration, which is why the envelope is in such demand, but there are just too many coincidences with how things come together. The big one is the fact that the girl who needs help also happens to be Vanessa’s roommate who just gave her the boot earlier in the day. In a flashback we see her ask specifically for Wilee but earlier we saw Wilee had to fight to get that assignment, and that’s not the only time the flashback doesn’t connect with what happened earlier. It’s also never quite clear how Monday or the Chinese bookies he owes money to can use what’s in the envelope to get $50,000 (or how Nima could ever scrounge together that sort of money).
Questions like that tend to kill some of the good will some may feel towards the filmmakers’ attempts at authenticity; the extremely cheesy way the movie is resolved may kill the rest of it.
The Bottom Line:
“Premium Rush” is entertaining enough with some impressive stuns and speedy camerawork, but some of its inherent silliness might guarantee its place as a cult hit that finds more fans once it hits cable.