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In Premium Rush, writer/director David Koepp delivers a dud.

Breaking Away

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a courier in a rush
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a courier in a rush

Premium Rush is a great title looking for a great movie. It refers to a bike courier’s priority delivery; it’s something to be picked up and delivered post haste.

In this case, the setting is Manhattan and the mission is to pick up a simple little envelope at Columbia University and deliver it to a spot down in Chinatown. This is the kind of movie that seeks to make an adventure of courier biking, with the entire city of New York serving as one big ol’ obstacle course. Pedestrians are a menace and taxi cabs are killers.

Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception) is thrilled to be a courier. He gets paid to ride his bike; what could be better than that? Yeah, he knows someday he’s doomed to wear a suit like his law school buddies, but not yet. As Wilee likes to say, he’s “Runnin’ reds and killin’ peds.” He’s got the mojo goin’ and he pre-visualizes all of his options in trying to skirt traffic and dodge pitfalls; the crashes he visualizes are sometimes humorous and perfectly in line with the mayhem of a Looney Tunes cartoon. How fitting, then, that the protagonist is teased about being named after Wile E. Coyote by a crusty NYPD detective named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon, Jonah Hex and General Zod in the forthcoming Man of Steel).

This detective ain’t Joe Friday, that’s for sure. He’s his own wad of caricature. He’s addicted to gambling (something he’s terrible at) and he describes himself as having “impulse control issues.” It’s unfortunate his name doesn’t ring of Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd. Instead, Monday uses the pseudonym Forrest J Ackerman (the godfather of sci-fi /horror fandom) in his nefarious dealings.

Bad Brakes

So in what kind of nefarious dealings does Wilee find himself? Actually, the item to be delivered is itself relatively innocent. It’s the wacky wildcard that is Bobby Monday that sends things careening out of control. The guy is up to his police badge in debt to his Chinese bookies and he’s in deep doo-doo unless he can come up with some money. It’s a really bad day for Monday when his bad temper flares up and he kills a guy during a spell of misplaced fury.

As things happen, the delivery in Wilee’s pouch becomes  Monday’s lifeline and Monday takes it upon himself to intercept the delivery and make some money for himself. Of course, Wilee is an upstanding delivery dude and he can’t just pass off his package to any yahoo flashing a badge. That’s particularly astute when the wingnut claims to be Forrest J Ackerman, IRS agent, while waving an NYPD badge.

It’s a simple setup and it sets the stage for plenty of biking action, but things get to be a little laughable in an unflattering way when the bike couriers begin to outrun and outwit NYPD for that most heinous of violations: biking on pedestrian paths in Central Park. One pour NYPD bike cop becomes a running (or would that be biking?) joke as he is repeatedly foiled (once again, it’s something like watching Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in their perpetual dust ups).

Of course it’s hard to take any of this seriously when Monday plays like a cross between Travis Bickle and David Letterman. Did Monday really utter the words “pedestrian scum” when a few pedestrians innocently get between him and his prey? Well, he most certainly used the excuse “I forgot my bullets” when he needed to duck out of official police duty in order to continue his own private pursuit.

Premium Rush is nutty. It’s absolutely goofy if not purely loony. But it’s not really good goofy.

A Different Kind of Bane

In The Dark Knight Rises, Gordon-Levitt rose up against a heavy named Bane. In Premium Rush, he plays the bane of New York’s streets. Those bikers are batty and they’re part of their very own counter-culture of extreme bikers and skateboarders who at times lack things like common sense and social grace, and not necessarily simply in the name of delivering the goods.

In concept, the subject has potential. In execution, not so much.

There’s a semi-climactic chase between Wilee and Monday involving an escape from a bike pound that plays out like a flat tire on a steep incline. The chase culminates with the closing of the pound’s giant warehouse doors and Wilee hoping to squeak right on through. It’s very Indiana Jones in concept, and that’s territory David Koepp is quite familiar with; after all, he wrote the screenplay for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s a shame, then, that the scene falls flat.

Considering Koepp also directed the super-sweet (and sadly overlooked) Ghost Town and has blockbusters including Jurassic Park and Spider-Man to his writing credit, there should’ve and could’ve been much more to Premium Rush than a mere 91-minute live-action cartoon.