Named like an energy drink, directed like a cartoon, performed in the style of poppy 90s blockbuster cheese that has sadly disappeared, Premium Rush is possibly the dumbest Hollywood outing of the summer in the best possible sense. There’s nothing about the story that approaches reality. This is a movie that takes place purely in blockbuster dreamland, that magical place where no one-liner is too silly, no law of physics can’t be broken by the hero, and not a second of screen time in wasted on angst or pain. Some people deride these movies for being devoid of artistic value. Well, that’s absolutely true and almost misses the point entirely. You’re not supposed to take Premium Rush seriously; you’re just supposed to laugh hysterically, stuff down mountains of popcorn, buckle up and enjoy the ride. It’s unclear if writer/director David Koepp approached the film with a sense of irony, but as long as the audience does this thing is a wild ride.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wiley, a man who loves riding bikes more than life itself. So, despite having a masters degree in law and a big ol’ brain that every character compliments, he spends his days as a bike courier. Why? Well, the rush of course! (Did you read the title?). Hell, the guy doesn’t even have breaks on his bicycle. He’s out of friggin’ control and appears to have some variation on spider-sense that allows him to slow down time and plot the perfect route during traffic. These are all damn important skills to have on this particular day too.
Wiley is asked to deliver a special package by a mysterious caller. As soon as he picks it up, Michael Shannon pops up (that’s never a good sign, especially when his name is Bobby Monday) and insists that he give it back. Wiley of course refuses and the next thing you know he’s being chased by Shannon in a car, another cop on a bike, and a competitive co-worker. It soon turns out that Shannon is a cop in debt trying to get out and the package could seriously help a woman who just happens to be Levitt’s ex-girlfriend’s roommate. Simply put, he could be a hero and get the girl if he pulls it all off. No points for guessing whether or not it works out.
As you have probably worked out by now, this thing is pure schlock and the good news is that it comes from one of Hollywood’s most underrated schlock slingers in David Koepp (who wrote Carlito’s Way, Spider-man and Jurassic Park and also directed Stir of Echoes and Ghost Town). He’s capable of misfiring (see the woeful lows of Secret Window), but when Koepp is on the ball he has an incredible knack for pushing audience pleasure centers and a subtle, winking sense of humor. Premium Rush falls right into that sweet spot and is a lovingly ludicrous affair. There’s not a second that is meant to be taken seriously, yet it never approaches the excessive satirical heights of, say, the Crank series. Koepp gives the movie just enough internal logic to permit trips down the surreal action rabbit hole and a delightfully non-linear narrative that keeps the film from ever becoming too bogged down by slavishly following genre conventions.
Levitt is strong in the lead, playing it straight without getting too heavily into his cartoon character. Michael Shannon clearly has a blast as the villain, ramping up the role like the new Christopher Walken that he could so easily become through hilarious readings of lines like “I forgot my bullets.” (Trust me, you’ll laugh when you see it). The rest of the cast is fine, but this is ultimately a cat n’ mouse two-hander so those are the crucial roles and Koepp cast them right.
Premium Rush isn’t a deep movie with layers to be peeled away and explored. It’s one of those lovingly dumb blockbusters that Hollywood used to specialize in and gets the requisite thrills across with plenty of humor. Movies like this are essentially cartoons with flesh and blood actors (Levitt’s character is even named after a certain Coyote). The colors are bright, the action is relentless, the characters are endearing, the jokes keep flowing, and before you know it the ride is over. Is the movie idiotic, silly, and easily dismissed as populous trash? Of course! But this thing also delivers all the genre requirements with more humor and sheer joy than is to be expected for these sorts of late summer slot-fillers. If you have a bad time at Premium Rush, you’re either too cynical about movies to enjoy good trash or you had a heart attack in the theater from all the awesomeness. Those are really the only two options.