"Premium Rush", the new film from director David Koepp ("Ghost Town", "The Secret Window") has a lot going for it and one major drawback. But all in all, it’s a fun, edge-of-your-seat-type of entertainment and is shaping up to become an underappreciated summer treat.
Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a NYC bike messenger, picks up a package from Nima (Jamie Chung, "The Real World: San Diego") who has gone to great lengths to secure the contents of the envelope, a movie ticket with a doodle on it. Nima is also the ex-roommate of Wilee's ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), so they have a connection and she trusts Wilee more with this very precious package. The envelope must be delivered by 7pm to an address in Chinatown. No problem for Wilee. He seems to make a game out of speeding through the horrible Manhattan traffic, trying to avoid obstacles and make deliveries in a timely manner. He and Vanessa, and the rest of the bike messenger community are closely knit and look out for one another. But there is one big problem; a crooked cop, Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon, "Take Shelter", ""Revolutionary Road"), with a huge gambling debt, wants the envelope as well and will do just about anything to get it.
Start the clock. Wilee has just about 90 minutes to make the delivery, weaving through the crowded streets of Manhattan. Just under 90 minutes to elude the crooked cop. Just under 90 minutes to save some lives, prevent some deaths and figure out what the hell is going on.
Koepp, who co-wrote the screenplay (and wrote, among many others, "Indiana Jones 4", "War of the Worlds", "Angels and Demons") then puts into place a little used and difficult to pull off narrative device; he tells Wilee's story in "real time". When a filmmaker chooses to use this device, they usually do so because they want to keep the pace moving and want to heighten the suspense. But this device is rarely used because it is difficult to pull off well. It also adds an inherent problem to the narrative. If everything in the film is happening in real time, how do you establish any of the characters back stories?
Koepp gets around these problems in a unique and interesting way. As soon as Wilee gets the package and receives his instructions, the clock starts, appearing on screen at key times. This is done to help keep us grounded in the story, but also to provide a 'ticking clock', ratcheting the tension up a couple of notches. Wilee sets off, speeding through taxis and parked cars, pedestrians and other vehicles, trying to keep one step ahead of a very determined cop who is chasing him. To get around the narrative restrictions, Koepp uses the slow moments, when Wilee is riding without incident, to turn the clock back. The clock pops up on screen and rushes back to an earlier moment illustrating another part of the narrative. When the moment is done, the clock rushes forward again and we pick up where we left off. Koepp doesn't limit this technique just to Gordon-Levitt and allows us to see key moments that occur before the time frame of this film. Basically, the director cheats on the narrative device but does so in a way that still seems natural.
The television series "24" is a really good example of how this technique can be used successfully in an action story. But even "24" cheated. Not everything was told in real time. After commercial breaks, the time suddenly skips forward four or five minutes. What happened during those missed moments? The skill comes when the filmmakers successfully hide the inconsequential, or boring, moments in these time breaks.
The real time device, with the clock popping up on screen probably sounds unnatural and obtrusive. Because the film is very graphic heavy, the ticking clock becomes part of the overall look and blends in more. Early on, as Wilee rides through the insane traffic, trying to make his delivery on time, he is suddenly confronted by a huge truck blocking his way. He looks at three different alternatives, trying to figure out which way to go. As he does this, we take on his point-of-view and watch as his mind plots a course through the various obstacles, complete with a yellow arrow and a glimpse at the outcome of each route. As soon as he figures out which way to go, he speeds through.
"Premium Rush" is a plot-driven film; we are watching Wilee navigating various obstacles to make his delivery on time. He has to get from Point A to Point B in a short amount of time or something really bad could happen. The little flashback moments I mentioned earlier help to provide a little back-story to the characters, but these moments illustrate why the characters make decisions that will affect the plot. In doing this, the filmmakers establish "Rush" as an action film, a film meant to solely create thrills. And Koepp does this well, so I have no complaints. But I usually prefer character-driven stories.
But this plot-driven story robs Gordon-Levitt of the opportunity to create another full-fledged character. He is a fine actor and has created some very memorable films. But he also falls victim to "Hollywood-itis". Wilee is, for Gordon-Levitt, the equivalent of Meryl Streep in "River Wild". In both instances, a very good actor takes an action movie role in an effort to increase their profile, make them more bankable and push them into another level of stardom. In Gordon-Levitt's case, he seems destined to headline a big budget Hollywood no-brainer; "Premium Rush" and the upcoming "Looper" seem like stepping stones to that goal. When I think of the actor, I think of "(500) Days of Summer", "The Lookout", "50/50" and "Inception". I want to see him in more films like these. We have enough big budget no-brainer films starring over paid 'actors' and don't need to corrupt another fine actor and change him.
Michael Shannon, who has been in a ton of films but received a lot of positive press for "Take Shelter" and "Revolutionary Road", plays the crooked cop Bobby Monday. Unfortunately, he chews up the scenery, playing the role way over the top. And his seemingly unnatural ability to stay in pursuit of Wilee only makes him seem like the Terminator. Because his character is so unnatural, it makes the film seem more cartoonish than it should. And that isn't a great thing for a film like this, a film trying so hard to make everything seem real.
The whole story behind the movie ticket is a little overly complex and almost seems unreal. I am sure Koepp has based this on a real practice, but because it is so complicated, it seems out of place. Hitchcock always used a MacGuffin in his films, something the bad guys were after but had little actual connection to the story. It was the reason for the actions of the villain, but once the hero got involved, the interactions between the two sides became the film. In "North By Northwest", the MacGuffin is the little statue Vandamm wants to buy at the auction. It contains microfilm, but what that microfilm contains is of little consequence. Because Koepp gives so much emphasis to this movie ticket, and what it means, it becomes an integral part of the film and makes everything seem a little off balance.
Koepp has created an exciting, interesting and well-made film with a major flaw. It is well-worth a bargain matinee or DVD rental.