“I like to ride. Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.”
I finally got around to seeing Premium Rush, the action film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt that was released last August. When I saw the previews for this film, I was pretty excited to see it. A feature-length movie about cycling with actors who have actually been in other movies I have seen is a rare thing and the trailers offered tantalizing snippets of cool chase scenes through New York City.
I’m glad I waited for it to come out on a rental DVD.
Gordon-Levitt plays a bike messenger who needs to take an important package across town. He doesn’t realize just how important it is until a bad man (Michael Shannon) tries to stop him. The rest are just details necessary to set up a series of beautifully shot chase scenes through the heart of NYC. If you are looking for character development, deep meaning, or even an intriguing plot twist, you will be disappointed. This movie is all about cyclists zooming through downtown Manhattan.
In between bike stunts, we are briefly introduced to most of the stereotypical members of the urban cycling scene. Center stage are the bicycle messengers, hardy individualists living life on the edge with their fixed gear bikes, no brakes, and huge chain locks. The movie doesn’t dwell on the fact that messengers are a dying breed due to the Information Age, nor does it adequately explain why Gordon-Levitt’s character would successfully graduate the Columbia School of Law but suddenly have a change of heart, refuse to take the bar exam, and become a bike messenger. I’m sure his parents are thrilled paying back those student loans.
We also meet a burly NYC bicycle cop, who naturally can never quite catch up with our messenger heroes nor perform stunts quite as well as they do. We see overweight roadies riding extraordinarily slow in their spandex kits. Finally, we are exposed to mountain biking when Godon-Levitt “appropriates” a bicycle and does some great urban stunt work over various obstacles.
In addition to the stunt work, the director employs a neat plot device in which the action freezes at critical moments and Gordon-Levitt is able to analyze various paths through moving vehicles and pedestrians. Almost all paths lead to disaster, but in a nano-second our hero finds the one option that will allow him to pass through unscathed – most times. If you’ve seen the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, the effect is similar to when Holmes quickly assesses (in slow motion) how to subdue an opponent.
There is more than one bike crash and (although my rather minor accident is now one year behind me) I still found them to be rather jarring as the cyclists flew through the air and inevitably landed on the concrete. Ouch. The cyclists in the movie were much better at getting up and immediately mounting their bikes than I was after I my unfortunate event.
Although Gordon-Levitt’s character is certainly sympathetic, the movie fails in its attempt to portray bike messengers as some sort of noble breed of free spirits living life as it is meant to be lived. In fact, they are extraordinarily dangerous scofflaws who routinely run red lights, hang on to cars, destroy car mirrors when their drivers cause offense, ride on sidewalks, ride against traffic, and do pretty much whatever they please with reckless abandon and with impunity. When Shannon finally corners Gordon-Levitt, he exclaims, “You (messengers) are a menace! Everybody in this city hates you!” If real-life NYC cyclists come even close to this portrayal, I can see why everybody would hate them. The movie certainly does little as a good-will ambassador for the urban cycling community.
Thus it was of no surprise to me that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snubbed Premium Rush during its recent Oscar nominations. This will not go down as one of the great movies of all-time, or even this year. But it does have some cool chase scenes and for ninety minutes it entertains on that level. All in all, a good rental.