Saturday, August 25, 2012


As a screenwriter, David Koepp is among the most successful Hollywood has. He’s had a hand in writing an Indiana Jones, two Jurassic Parks, a Spider-man, a Men in Black, a Mission: Impossible, and several original screenplays for some of the most distinctive directors of the past twenty years including Brian De Palma, Robert Zemeckis, and David Fincher. That’s an impressive resume of popcorn filmmaking, but where he’s somewhat-secretly come into his own is as a writer-director. He’s become a genre journeyman filmmaker par excellence. With a clean, consistently professional style and a confident ease with actors, he’s created films like the creepy Stephen King adaptation Secret Window and the charming, gently moving, comic paranormal romance Ghost Town. His newest film is Premium Rush, co-written with his occasional writing partner John Kamps. It’s a light, sunny, zippy chase movie that starts in motion and never lets up, pedaling full speed ahead all the time.

Set in the world of bike messengers in New York City, the film opens with a speed demon named Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) riding as fast as he can down city streets, weaving in and out of traffic, narrowly avoid collisions. In voice over, he extols the virtues of his dangerous customized bike: no breaks, one gear, the pedals always in motion. That’s an apt description of the film as well, for right off the bat his boss (Aasif Mandvi) sends him to pick up an envelope that must be delivered in 90 minutes’ time. Premium Rush. Intercepting this envelope is of supreme importance to a sweaty, nervous, desperate detective (Michael Shannon) who fixes Wilee with a wild-eyed stare and asks if he could take it off his hands. Perplexed by this odd request, a request that’s against company policy anyways, Wilee takes off. The detective takes off after him. The chase is on.

Filmed in smooth, sliding shots crisply edited together, the film is lightening fast, quick and uncomplicated, with a structure that’s a thing of beauty. After some time running forwards, it spins its gears backwards to speedily fill in the story of the envelope –the young woman (Jamie Chung) who needed it sent and why this bad guy needs to get his hands on it – interlocking with the scenes just witnessed with breathless ease before smashing forwards again. Koepp keeps things fast and funny, folding in a rival bike messenger (Sean Kennedy), Wilee’s somewhat exasperated girlfriend (Dania Ramirez), and a tenacious bike cop (Christopher Place) as the envelope crisscrosses Manhattan in a messenger bag, the deadline drawing nearer.

This is a film of great stunt work and charisma from all involved. Joseph Gordon-Levitt keeps the heart of the movie pumping, pedaling constantly through many of his scenes, eager to keep the creep away from the apparently precious contents of the envelope. It’s a great, expressive physical performance that’s convincing in its athletic detail. He’s playing a young guy with an intense job of fast reflexes and reckless skill who gets pulled into action movie shenanigans just because he’s good at what he does. He’s immediately likable and, as the full extent of the plot comes into focus, it’s easy to hope that he gets everything set right and that he remains unharmed. Part of the reason is Gordon-Levitt’s inherent charm, but some of this is the Michael Shannon factor. He’s one of our greatest actors (see Take Shelter if you haven’t yet) and here he’s a fine slimeball in the best hiss-worthy tradition. Instead of playing his crooked cop as a scene-chomping villain or a misunderstood guy in over his head, he’s just a mean brute sloppily covering up his mistakes. That’s even scarier.

The danger in the movie is palpable, with bikes weaving this way and that, swerving around obstacles, in and around cars both moving, barreling through intersections and switching lanes, and parked, with doors unpredictably opening and closing. The end credits have an iPhone-shot behind-the-scenes look at a real on-set bike accident, Gordon-Levitt grinning as he shows off his bloody arm like Jackie Chan once did in credits of his films. Indeed, the choreography of the bikes has something of the grinning skill and speed of a well-executed fight scene, filmed and edited for clarity and speed. It’s especially thrilling to see an action movie so committed to a great gimmick. Refreshingly, there’s only one gunshot in the entire 91-minute running time. The pace is breathless, the thrills relentless. The film turns New York into a citywide obstacle course with all the nervous, propulsive energy that comes with bikes careening about and coming within a hair of crashing at every turn.

It’s a movie of simple human geography – Koepp cuts to a grid of the city streets from time to time – and feats of endurance as convincingly portrayed by stunt drivers and effects artists in a seamless illusion. As a summer packed with the typical bloated blockbusters –several quite good – is winding down, it’s nice to have a late-August break, an after-dinner mint to stave off cinematic indigestion. This is a film that’s mercifully simple and skillful, original yet comfortable, straightforward and speedy. It takes what could be standard genre stuff and livens it up with creativity and adrenaline. It’s a chase picture so go-go-go even the final shot before the cut to the credits is in motion and contains a fun visual trick. Motion picture indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed the film quite a bit. Loved the editing sequences where they played out what would happen pending the route he takes. Ingenious stuff.