I hate “non-stop action” movies. Movies are usually given this descriptor when a tone deaf director or editor thinks that the only way to keep excitement going is to have the entire movie move at one breakneck pace, to the point where any random two-minute segment could serve as the film’s trailer. What these directors fail to comprehend—and their movies suffer immensely for—is that exciting moments are only exciting when juxtaposed with less exciting moments. Inability to recognize this simple fact renders many films that strive to be “non-stop action” actually insufferable bores.
Premium Rush does not have this problem. It moves at a breakneck pace all right, but the director, David Koepp, is wise to keep some scenes less breakneck than others. There are actual peaks and valleys in the pace of this film, ensuring that the exciting bits are just that much more exciting—the difference is, the valleys of Premium Rush move much more quickly than most films’ peaks. And there is not a single wasted moment. David Koepp has been the scribe of such successful films as Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, and the director of less successful films like The Trigger Effect, Stir of Echoes, and Ghost Town, the last of which I thought was not terrible. Given this uneven track record, I wasn’t expecting Premium Rush to be quite as exhilarating as it is.
The film plays in the hectic world of New York City bike messengers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an ever-reliable hero, is given an envelope that must be delivered to a specific address by 7pm. Though Koepp, who shares screenwriting duties here, “raises the stakes” with the story of what’s inside the envelope and why it’s important, in reality it is simply the MacGuffin to drive a series of thrilling chase sequences involving a plethora of bike and car stunts.
And this is Koepp’s major success here. In Premium Rush, there are actual stuntmen, on actual bikes, in actual cars, doing actual stunts. CGI is kept to a minimum—and even then used mainly for brief fantasy sequences. The stakes are raised less because of our knowledge of the contents of the envelope, but because these situations seem palpably, punishingly real. I tire of action sequences composed of myriad computer-generated elements; it may be easier for the filmmakers to construct, but nowadays they routinely fail to convince, and play just as woodenly as the “actors” these mindless auteurs gather to populate their momentous SFX extravaganzas.
Koepp also sidesteps the trap of taking his material too seriously. He liberally peppers Premium Rush with truly hilarious moments that help relieve some of the excess tension—before ratcheting it back up, of course. The funniest moments, surprisingly, come from Michael Shannon; well known for playing weirdos and grave neurotics (brilliantly in last year’s Take Shelter), here he hits the “intensity” and “buffoonery” notes in equal measure, and to great effect. In fact, Koepp has assembled an impressive cast; there is not a single weak performance in the entire film, and all the actors do a fine job of riding the line between drama and whimsy the film itself navigates.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing too deep or substantive here, but I would by no means call Premium Rush brainless entertainment. It’s more like Koepp reaches into your brain and for ninety minutes stimulates the part that responds to severe fight-or-flight peril. It’s a film no action fan should miss—and if the common Hollywood action movie isn’t your thing, rest assured: Premium Rush is not the common Hollywood action movie.
Bottom Line: Premium Rush isn’t great art, but it is a great action film—even for people who don’t like action films.