(PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, street date: December 21, 2012, SRP: $35.99)
With a title that brings to mind a bargain bin classic rock compilation, a plot that has been overstated in its similarity to a mid-1980s Kevin Bacon vehicle and yet another whacked-out, wacky supporting turn for Michael Shannon in the spirit of his vicariously vulgar Kim Fowley imitation from Floria Sigismondi's The Runaways, Premium Rush sounds zippy in all the weakest ways. Never mind Sony's decision to keep this on the burner until what seemed like another banner year for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, following the sweep of The Dark Knight Rises (there's also claims of plagiarism from novelist/treatment writer Joe Quirk). Prolific scribe and frequent director David Koepp (Ghost Town) arrives with a movie that my cynical side is shocked to find hasn't been released in January, but had to eat the high-profile dust of the summer of 2012.
The result was an under-performing little castaway in the same company of shame as flops like Rock of Ages, That's My Boy and The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure. Having seen Premium Rush in my romanticized style of unassuming home video exposure, consider this one a deserved catch worthy of the chase.
I'm a big believer in B-movie economy, and David Koepp has a crackerjack sense of pacing, action and storytelling that, with all due respect to the late David R. Ellis, has been perfected by Koepp. He's written his fair share of hot properties, be they Jurassic Park, Spider-Man or Indiana Jones, but also worked frequently on films directed by Brian De Palma, and it's the latter collaborations that butter this movie's popcorn thrills. Premium Rush doesn't overstay its welcome, comes on with a wild sense of purpose and has the all-consuming breeziness of an actual bike trip.
Koepp's cartoonish courier caper names its two-wheeled, single-geared hero Wilee but endows him with the Road Runner's navigational prowess. Being the speediest delivery boy in Manhattan, where the traffic congestion comes thick and furious, Wilee uses a cellular GPS to map his destinations but does his best directional thinking during split-second dilemmas whenever he reaches an intersection. Looking to the left may bring unwanted harm to a pedestrian, whereas riding on the right could bust him down to the level of the pavement. Surveying his options and relying on both speed and cunning, Wilee does his best to "pay heed" as one colorful side character espouses, but acknowledges that the possibility of taking a hit is very common and real.
Wilee isn't ready to either hang up or touch up his bicycle, though, especially if plan B is donning a law student's three-pieced suit and thus living by the brakes he so foolhardily denies installing. His recent route involves his hot-and-bothered girlfriend Vanessa's (Dania Ramirez) own strung-out roommate Nima (Jamie Chung), a Columbia University alum who entrusts Wilee to deliver an envelope to Chinatown, where a snakehead named Sister Chen is waiting to pick up the parcel by 7:00 P.M. In a little over 100 minutes (doesn't this sound so much more like Darkman than Batman?), Wilee has to fulfill his end of the job without getting accosted by the NYPD traffic cops or, even worse, rogue detective Bobby Monday (his primary alias: Forrest J. Ackerman), who has the type of desperate stake in intercepting the envelope that brings out the raging psycho in him both before and after he first intimidates Wilee.
The frequently fanatical character actor Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) bestows Monday with an unhinged, unpredictable zest akin to a modern day Cagney. The narrative rewinds itself a la Run Lola Run at key points to develop the motivations of both Monday and Nima, but Shannon's relentless bogey with a badge dominates many of these flash-backward vignettes. Monday flakes out on a gambling debt by simply taking his rebuy money across the street, where he duly loses it and suffers a beatdown from a pair of thugs who bludgeon him with the phone book ("Is that Chinese?"). When they remove him of a tooth, Monday retaliates by knocking one of the enforcers near death and is forced deeper into moral betrayal by accepting the tip-off involving Nima's $50,000 package. Before that, the audience has already watched him gleefully taunt both Wilee ("This is silly. You're gonna skin your knee.") and himself ("I'm chasing a bicycle. Heh heh!") with his first ill-fated pursuit of the loot. Shannon's cackling, cowardly, crazed performance is a blissful example of precisely-calibrated overacting, as funny it is frightening.
Both Gordon-Levitt and Shannon anchor (or is that anvil?) the film with their respective charisma, the former giving a lightweight but brazenly charming lead role less Sam Witwicky and more vintage John Cusack. They blend in well with Koepp's scenic eye, fleet-of-foot action and fondness for unfettered stunt work (including a memorable on-set injury preserved in the end credits) that makes the copious street-beat set pieces approachable and, yes, often exciting.
Escapism doesn't get more basic and old-fashioned as Wilee's attitude of "taste my pedal steel," even if it admittedly has no logical bearing in both reality (not a single motorist or cavalry of cops decide to pose the same challenge as Monday or the more innocuous bike cop, played by Christopher Place, whom Wilee dodges) or story wise (Wilee and Vanessa have a chaste little thing called love, one hardly challenged by a third-wheel braggart of an antagonist named Manny, played by Wolé Parks). Koepp's cracking pace and quick, evenly-handled cuts give the chases breathing room and draw deserved attention to the ingenious camera placements and colorful locales.
Low on stakes but high on vigor, Premium Rush is simply wunderbar. The Blu-Ray edition boasts a remarkable 1080p HD image and whiz-bang lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack utilizing discrete effects and ambience with the foremost proficiency. The bonus features, though, are limited to 22 minutes worth of EPK interviews and some previews. Hipster Sleigh Bells fans (the noise-pop duo have a fleeting cameo to the final notes of "Crown on the Ground") may consider forming a flash mob.