Summer action movie season is winding down, but “Premium Rush” gives us a last thrilling gasp of the brainless popcorn movie before we head into the season of Oscar contenders and serious art films. This is a movie with pretty people doing exciting stunts and just enough plot to string the stunt sequences together. If you engage your brain further than “woooo, go good guys! Boo bad guys!” you will find plenty of things to dislike, but if you just want to be entertained for an hour and a half, this is your flick.
The setup is straightforward: Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Manhattan bike messenger, a lunatic on a fixed-gear bike who dodges taxis and pedestrians as he weaves through traffic transporting packages (fans of The Daily Show will be excited to know his boss is played by Aasif Mandvi). He’s notorious even among his fellow bike messengers for being an adrenaline junkie. His girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), also a messenger, has had it up to here with him. He’s trying to persuade her they should get back together when a rush job comes in specifically requesting him: he’s to pick up an envelope from a nearby law school and take it to a restaurant in Chinatown. When he’s stopped almost immediately by someone (Michael Shannon) claiming to be the dean of students, who leans on him hard to give up the envelope, he bolts — only to find the guy chasing him in a car, trying to run him over so he can take it.
The rest of the film is a blend of Wilee’s desperate attempts to survive the courier run and flashbacks from various characters explaining what exactly he’s carrying and why the guy is so desperate to get his hands on it. It shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, but the pacing of the action sequences and gradual revelations of what’s in the envelope and why so many people care are handled deftly. David Koepp, who directed and co-wrote, has worked on some top-notch films, including “Jurassic Park,” and his experience shows.
The bike stunt sequences are amazing — Gordon-Levitt did a lot of the riding himself (folks who follow the right people on Twitter will have seen photos of the taxi he crashed into and the resulting damage he did to himself. Stick around for the credits to see a short video taken before he went to the hospital), and the choreography is stellar. Anyone who’s known (or been!) a bike daredevil will recognize a lot of the moves in the film, and the way Koepp portrays Wilee’s thought processes as he plots his routes through traffic.
Where the film does have problems is in the categories of racism and gender relations. The courier job is for an immigrant, a desperate and beautiful Chinese woman. All the Chinese people in the film are mysterious Asians involved in crime. Wilee and Vanessa have an interaction early on that is clearly meant to be romantic but will set off alarm bells in anyone who knows anything about emotional abuse. It’s not exactly breaking news to say Hollywood has problems in these areas, but that doesn’t make the stereotyping or glorification of creepitude less aggravating.
The vast majority of theatergoers probably won’t care, however. If you can roll your eyes and enjoy the film anyway, there is a lot to love about “Premium Rush.” This is a movie aimed square at action flick aficionados, and pretty much sure to please. If you like nuanced characters and dislike the way Hollywood handles social problems, stay far away.