I love movies like this because I like movies like this. My film students always assume that because it’s not classic or foreign or Oscar bait, that of course a film professor wouldn’t waste precious time on a film that’s just simple fun.
But Premium Rush is a great summer fun film. It’s not art, and doesn’t pretend to be. Full disclosure: It was doubly fun for me because I went to school at Columbia University in New York, and every shot in the film of the campus or 116th and Broadway was a personal joy. I’m also a fan of the present and possible future work of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an immensely likeable film personality who is showing us an ever-greater range every year [The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, 50/50, (500) Days of Summer]. Casting such an appealing personality in a part that could be considered a little crazy goes a long way in holding the film together and creating sympathy for a character who makes questionable choices.
The plot, for what it’s worth, is the story of a bike messenger in New York City who has no brakes on his bike and few on his temperament. He moves fast and thinks faster, and his quick decisions on the road combine the mental approach of Sherlock Holmes (in the Robert Downey films) when faced with a fight with the special effects of Wanted (but with much less seriousness).
The catalyst for all the action is a delivery that Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) has to make. Of course it’s a hot item, and needs to be intercepted by the bad guy for nefarious reasons. Eventually all the old standards are dragged in—the conflicted romance, the romantic competition, even the “I thought this was about something else, but now it’s personal” angle. Everything is eventually explained as we go along, but credibility is still stretched to the breaking point several times, especially in the scene of Wilee chasing down his romantic and business rival. But it doesn’t much matter.
Sometimes fun films or quickly made films (this film for the first, Psycho an example of the latter) can be studied for how they reflect society or deal with racial or political issues. This could probably be grist for the mill for a good university thesis. We have a white guy who has rejected the world of business, a black romantic rival who is jealous of the white guy’s success as a messenger and with “the girl.” Plus that girl is perhaps half-black and half-white or Hispanic or whatever. Then we have all the Chinese, corrupt both here and overseas, making life hard for all our characters in the film. It’s always intriguing to see who are the villains in films that just need a villain to keep things moving.
And then there is Michael Shannon, the villain, who is quickly becoming Mr. Unhinged of the American cinema. He’s an actor capable of subtle and lovely work (Take Shelter, Revolutionary Road), but here he chews up the scenery so often and so aggressively that I thought he’d ending up eating up the actors and having the messenger bikes for dessert. We can all hope it was just quick money and that he’ll go back to exploring the depths of his talents.
Ultimately, this is just a breezy, fun, almost unbelievable film. It’s got some good casting, some good actors not used to their fullest, and a solid if simple script. It’s also got energy and a solid rhythm. Check your critical faculties at the door and enjoy the ride. You’ll forget it all in a day or two anyway.