Sometimes you just need a simple adrenaline rush of a movie, where chases and sturdy characters types impulsively move through a blur of suspense. David Koepp's Premium Rush hit that spot when I was seeking this kind of diversion. Driven by creative but integral visual tricks that briskly glide through New York's maze of streets, shops, and cars, this is a production that understands its meager purpose -- get the audience wrapped up in the bike messenger scene for a straightforward action-suspense film -- and pours its attention into oiling up the mechanics that pedal it forward. The gravitas of competition, the thrill of pursuit, and the bare-knuckled rationale behind why the riders do what they do surround an unassuming hero in rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and while it could stand to focus and flesh out the substance driving its underlying conflict, it's indeed a exhilarating, polished rush.
Gordon-Levitt saddles a break-free, fixed-gear cycle as Wilee, an educated and risk-taking messenger whose character mixes eccentricity and control with an urge to push his limits. Despite his work as Security Courier not current offering the most hospitable of atmospheres -- he recently broke up with his messenger girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and he's vying for routes against a muscle-bound rival, Manny (Wolé Parks) -- he maintains a substantial amount of assignments due to his speed and skill in navigating New York's obstacle-heavy, car-laden network. But that's not the Wilee first seen in the film's initial scene: sweaty, starry-eyed, and hugging pavement, he's presumably knocked down due to the events that drive a time-ticker that also appears on-screen, and it's reasonable to assume that it's because of a specific job. Premium Rush starts things off by steeping the audience in the culture, similarly to the way Quicksilver does, but then it progresses towards revealing the details of that assignment.
Koepp's objective becomes clear once the camera follows Wilee through New York's grid: he's out to create visually-driven suspense that gets someone on a bike from one side of the city to the other as quickly as possible, weaving through obstructions with an intuitive eye. Premium Rush showcases inventiveness when focused on the speed and danger of cycling through a city environment, focused on low-lying angles that capture twirling spokes and huffing bodies as the world blurs around them. Inventive usage of tilt-shift photography (also knows as "miniature faking") creates the illusion of a tangible map for Wilee to follow, while his phone's graphical interface logs a path to follow. And when he's confronted with obstacles, Koepp cleverly shows what happens if he were to make the wrong choices through what-if crashes. Transformers and Wanted cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen brings his style down an octave, bottling raw verve here for something quite involving.
Eventually, the purpose behind Premium Rush's story does emerge, as a specific high-value package Wilee needs to deliver in a very short time-frame -- which garners attention from all the wrong sources. It's here, though, that Koepp's undemanding script skids into issues that limit its effectiveness beyond that of an instinctive bike-chase adventure. A conflict involving organized crime, child trafficking, and a gambling-addicted NYPD police officer (Michael Shannon) earns Wilee's personal investment to the situation, yet it clumsily and hastily touches on these points by doing little more than giving our rider a clear-cut villain and a complex destination. It does, however, introduce an absorbing mechanic in the middle of the time-crunched chases: several different points of view, including that of the police officer and Wilee's package-giver, reveal the situation's complexity while sustaining the element of a set, cramped time period.
In a year where he caked on make-up and graveled his voice to appear as a younger Bruce Willis, and where he stiffened his demeanor into a clean-cut and idealistic copy for a comic-book movie, it's refreshing to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt let his unfiltered charisma create a character in Wilee. His role demands a confident, earthy haste in his presence whether he's riding the bike or not, trading barbs with his cocky competition or slipping back into a rhythm with his self-assured ex-girlfriend. Koepp's script keeps the dialogue bouncing between them crisp and amusing, allowing Gordon-Levitt's restrained comic timing and modest heroism to take shape when Wilee hurls himself into sprints across town, slips between cars, and takes a few necessary spills. Where the performances stumble, oddly enough, is in Det. Monday's mania -- not because Michael Shannon isn't intriguingly psychotic, which he delivers like clockwork, but because the character's wild-eyed abrasiveness feels too hefty in this slight production.
Premium Rush comes together into this brisk and hearty push across New York that never really loses steam, mostly due to the skill and style behind the fast-paced biking itself. Director Koepp keeps the pulse-rate high as he mixes different types of chases -- Wilee zips through buildings, between both moving and stationary cars, and through mostly-straightaway park roads, some handled by Gordon-Levitt and others by trained stunt riders -- which embrace that sheer focus on blurred suspense through an urban environment. That raw cinematic perspective becomes its most admirable trait; while the story itself hustles along and reaches a suitable crowd-pleasing climax, galvanizing the bike messenger culture and lashing against the agenda Wilee is racing against, it's those invigorating and well-photographed races themselves which make that 90-minute time rush by. It may be slight and uncomplicated, but its textured charm and breathless, everyday danger are all it needs to successfully meet its purposes.
Video and Audio:
Premium Rush's bold, industrial focus stays in motion essentially from start to finish, a trait that can prove tricky for some home-video presentations. Sony's 2.35:1-framed 1080p treatment works pretty damn hard to preserve that attribute, where gyrating wheels and pedals, the swift blur of cars and trees, and the camera's shakiness are shown careful consideration in this rock-solid digital rendering. Contrast renders colors that pop without distortion and deep, respectful black levels, capturing the New York atmosphere with razor-sharp aptitude. Occasionally, the image sports coarse thickness that might overstep Mitchell Amundsen's grainy-textured aims, but it adds to the film's essence all the same. What's important here is how authentic the motion feels and how it captures the close-ups on the riders' faces, to which there isn't a moment where slightly-elevated pop in the palette doesn't deliver heartily in healthy skin tones and sharply-etched details.
Creating the energetic and dangerous atmosphere surrounding Wilee's bolts across New York is just as important in the audio department, and Sony's 5-channel Master Audio track is up to the task. The full breadth of the surround channels frequently gets used in the design, whether it's the zip of cars across channels as they pass by or the David Sardy's furiously-moving soundtrack, and the spread creates a full-bodied, eclectic presence during Koepp's movement through the urban environment. The smaller scenes nail their necessary clarity and composure too, projecting authentic and crisp dialogue that doesn't distort when Michael Shannon goes on his overblown tirades, while a few subtle sound effects - the sound of bike tires on pavement, the clanging of Wilee's chain around his waist, and the subtle thud and crunch of slight messenger-on-car contact - make certain to retain a concise ear for those subtle ambient flickers that complete the experience. It's a very solid, fast-moving, and clear track.
The primary focus in the extra features falls on a pair of featurettes, totaling around twenty minutes of behind-the-scenes shots and interviews that do a surprisingly strong job of concisely exploring the craftsmanship that went into Premium Rush. The Starting Line (9:30, HD) starts out with David Koepp's explanation of a "map movie" and how his creative perspective brought it to life with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the bike-messenger culture, integrating how he sees the film as a "Western" and how he brings the acting, cinematography, and effects into a breathless package; and Behind the Wheels (12:51, HD) takes the focus more to a physical level, exploring the different types of races in the film, the style of cinematography capturing them, and the varied talents of Gordon-Levitt's stunt stand-ins in terms of the individual scenes: crashes, tricks, and quick acceleration through cramped areas.
Aside from that, the only other features available are Previews for other Sony films, namely Gordon-Levitt's Looper. Unfortunately, no trailer for Premium Rush has been included. Oh, and the Blu-ray does come with an Ultraviolet Download code for portable devices, too.
I like the cut of Premium Rush's jib. It's a straightforward, small-scale but accomplished action-thriller hinged on the gritty urban texture of bike messengers, where the composition of the cycle movement and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's unrestrained charm make its low-ball motives nothing short of absorbing. The story is neither deep nor free of issues, and Michael Shannon's villain feels a bit too large for the production, but the raw execution of the film's visceral delights accelerate beyond those shortcomings. Sony's solidly-handled Blu-ray is no slouch either, making this a firmly Recommended package all-around.