Film Review: "PREMIUM RUSH"
Published: Friday, August 24, 2012
Updated: Friday, August 24, 2012 08:08
Walking out of “PREMIUM RUSH”, my mind was abuzz. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t with thoughts of the movie. I was thinking about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and how he convinced me – with this role – that he really is a major movie star. Because breaking out in something like “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” is a big deal. But taking a mediocre effort like “RUSH” and carrying it into being something thoroughly watchable, just through sheer power of charisma? Only a real movie star can do that.
As daredevil NYC bike messenger Wilee (a nice play on the films nonstop chase narrative, I admit,) Levitt anchors the film’s cat-and-mouse construction. Delivering a rushed parcel (the films central MacGuffin) to a location in Chinatown turns out more difficult than imagined when the envelope – containing a marked-up, used ticket stub that carries with it great, unexplained wealth – turns out to be sought after by one of NYC’s finest; leaving a murderous police detective played by Michael Shannon (obviously) in Wilee’s chase.
A Chinese-tinted side story (thankfully with appropriately subtitled sequences,) revealing the mystery of the parcel Joseph so willfully rushes, is unfortunate, and detracts from the visceral sense of speed director David Koepp is going for. What this movie wants to be is “RUN LOLA RUN” – which is to say, if you haven’t seen that excellent gem, it wants to be a feature length chase sequence (visual references to “THE FRENCH CONNECTION” confirm that.) Unfortunately, between the uselessly maudlin subplot and some by-the-book direction, these breakneck chases feel a bit more like routine jogs.
It’s more than obvious that Koepp wants to make an American riff on “LOLA” – he borrows numerous visual flourishes, including a ‘multiple scenarios’ “special effect” that allows Levitt to see how different decisions would impact him in the immediate future (i.e., take a right turn on his bicycle while speeding away from Shannon and crash into a baby stroller, take a left turn and get hit by a car, weave through the center – that’s how to break free!) He even has his characters imparting their philosophies of “living without breaks” to try and match the attitude.
But there’s something he’s missing: speed. His camera just doesn’t capture the immediacy of the bikes’ movement, they feel like boats slowly floating in water when he should be rendering them as unstoppable forces of nature. It’s a subtle art, moving your cameras and actors at the perfect pace to fake the illusion of furious speed (look at “GOON” for recent proof of how it’s done well; on ice no less.) Koepp hasn’t quite figured it out.
Levitt is given very little breathing room in the lead role. The script sets him up as a speed freak that does the job for the high, his girlfriend is tired of his stunts, he has no brakes on his bike – it’s really a collection of baseline adrenaline addict clichés. Not to mention that every time his character starts to gain momentum, we cut to the aforementioned, largely disconnected subplot. Yet still he shines as a cartoon character, his eyes lighting up the screen in Leone-style close-ups, and his beyond-natural line delivery easing the audience into liking the movie through his own talents alone. This guy is going to be huge.
I can’t say the same about Michael Shannon’s market potential, but he sure as hell is one of our finest character actors. He also has no room for character detail in his role as a gambling addict police detective; chasing down a MacGuffin because the people above his debt told him to, and deprived of even the slightest hint of a backstory. Yet his manic eyes and over-the-top tics, which seem to suggest a character fighting off a light case of rabies, sell everything that the script leaves unexplained. On the page, it’s the most generic villain ever. But in Shannon’s hand, it becomes a stage for unrestrained, comic evil. Levitt may be Wilee, but Shannon’s the coyote, and we have almost as much fun watching him engage in his wild chase as he seems to have chewing up scenery. Get used to seeing Shannon elevate stock baddie roles for years to come.
Even with Shannon’s magnetic insanity and Levitt’s newly minted star power carrying the load, “PREMIUM RUSH” is nothing more than a shiftless studio effort. It preaches the value of speed, but never for a moment feels like it’s in a rush. It operates on B-movie logic, but (with a few small, violent exceptions) feels slick, corporate, and generic when it should be anarchic. This is the film that proves Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an actor I’d be willing to watch in anything, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean this “PREMIUM RUSH” is worth the surcharge.