Premium Rush certainly earns the implications of its title. Clocking in at 91 minutes, David Koepp’s comedic thriller is an enjoyably breathless toy. The narrative concerns a bike messenger’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) efforts to get a MacGuffin clear across Manhattan in 90 minutes while dodging the city’s infamous traffic, a rival messenger (Wolé Parks), and a dirty cop (Michael Shannon). But the film’s suspense derives from an implicit question: Can Koepp and co-writer John Kamps possibly keep a movie with a conceit this self-consciously limited going without succumbing to tedium or repetition?
As a screenwriter, Koepp is one of Hollywood’s most successful hired guns, a canny maestro of three-act structure who’s helped filmmakers, most notably Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma, realize their mathematical fascination with the machinery of intricately classical set pieces. But Koepp also tends to be impersonal, as he’s driven by those narrative theorems firstly and lastly. As a director, though, Koepp has been an often underrated journeyman, having made an unusually subtle horror film (Stir of Echoes) and a romantic comedy that’s actually romantic (Ghost Town), both, sadly, with little fanfare.
And now, with Premium Rush, Koepp has made a terrific action film, also sadly unpopular. Koepp’s impressive grasp of set-piece equations serves him wonderfully here, as this is one of the few American action films released in the last few years that bothers to give you a spatially coherent view of the chase scenes as they unfold. We’re thrillingly aware of the messenger’s vulnerability as he threads himself in and out of harm’s way, often missing cabs, buses, buildings, pedestrians, doors, road blocks, or various combinations of the aforementioned by precious inches as dangers continually pile on themselves like dominoes. The film is so fun it’s possible to miss how fleet and inventive it actually is: Within the chase, Koepp folds in a comedy of remarriage, a conventional tale of redemption, a love triangle, and a revenge story, all while gracefully screwing with the narrative’s linearity.
And in this case, the lack of subtext or personality that can mar Koepp as a screenwriter appears to be pointed, as he’s addressing the growing, and understandable, audience complaint that precious few films are truly serviceable, competent entertainments in these days in which Oscar or tent-pole bloat mostly rule the megaplexes. There’s no speechifying to be found in Premium Rush, and there’s no half-baked, vaguely nonsensical political metaphor or distractingly ostentatious special effects either (the F/X here are amazingly invisible). The film isn’t a masterpiece or a mammoth ode to limitless production values, and it isn’t meant to be, but it is, like Koepp’s previous films, an enjoyable testament to muscular craftsmanship. And that, in a relentlessly hyperbolic American cinematic climate in which everyone’s trying to be the next Christopher Nolan or Peter Jackson, feels damn near heroic.
The image is terrifically crisp, boasting a nearly three-dimensional effect that's more convincing than many films actually presented in 3D. Depth of field is detailed and the colors are strong and vibrant. The sound mix boasts an equally laudable specificity, as you can pinpoint with stunning clarity the varying aural characteristics of the dangers that present themselves to the hero on a whirlwind second by second basis. It's nice to see an unfairly neglected film transferred with such respect.
One does wish for a bit more in the extras department, as Premium Rush is a film that occasionally inspires one to ask, "How'd they do that?" "The Startling Line" primarily details casting, which means that it's inevitably a PR piece. "Behind the Wheels" sheds some light on the execution of the stunts, but it's regrettably too short and general. A sturdy, informative 30-minute making-of doc would've been nice.
A spry, inventive antidote to American blockbuster bloat.