PREMIUM RUSH (Rated PG-13)
The results of a full employment act for stuntmen are on display for the extreme risks of riding bikes at breakneck speed during peak New York City traffic in “Premium Rush.”
One could become exhausted watching primo bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dodging speeding cars and crazed cabbies while trekking practically the entire length of Manhattan.
Befitting the film’s fast pace, the action is set entirely in one day, late in the afternoon, when Wilee is summoned to pick up and deliver an envelope for a seemingly routine “premium rush.”
But there’s nothing routine about the ticking clock, which literally appears at crucial moments, that requires Wilee to deliver a package from Columbia University to a shop in Chinatown.
Immediately after picking up the envelope from a Chinese student (Jamie Chung), Wilee is confronted by the mysterious Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who attempts subterfuge to falsely intercept the envelope.
The stranger did not count on Wilee’s credo of delivering a package, no questions asked, with great speed and dispatch, especially when a deadline is at stake.
A great chase ensues, which pretty much eats up the clock for the duration of the film. It turns out that Monday is a bad cop bent on stealing a marker worth about $50,000.
Det. Monday is up to his eyeballs in debt to a bunch of Chinese gangsters. Playing Pai Gow with reckless abandon, the cop has an obvious gambling problem. He owes big bucks in a hurry.
Monday pursues Wilee by car, but he’s no match for the wily bike messenger who has the uncanny ability to strategize every move to avoid accidents.
We are treated to insights in Wilee’s mind as he figures the odds of one false move versus another. Oddly enough, the choices avoided, charted on screen, often lead to some comic relief.
Aside from a lot of fast peddling, there is some time for character development, though we don’t find out much. Wilee apparently went to Columbia Law School, but didn’t want to take the bar exam and end up wearing a suit.
Although a smart guy, Wilee chooses to work for low wages in a dangerous job. He loves the thrill of riding a bike with only one gear and no stopping.
Riding a bike with no brakes is a good metaphor for who Wilee is and how he operates. The persistent Detective Monday and a NYPD bike cop annoyed by Wilee’s traffic infractions are consistently outwitted by him.
Other than his bike, Wilee also cares for fellow bike messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), his on-again, off-again girlfriend who fails to appreciate that Wilee only lives for the moment.
For additional obligatory dramatic conflict, Wilee contends with extremely competitive co-worker Manny (Wole Parks), a cocky, arrogant rival with an expensive bike who’s always putting moves on Vanessa.
While Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s daredevil bike rider is an appealing character, the biggest scene stealer is Michael Shannon’s corrupt cop. Flailing away in Chinese gambling dens, Shannon is a marvel to watch in his progressive meltdown.
The essence of “Premium Rush” is basically very simple. At a compact running time of 91 minutes, the film’s focus rests mostly with the fast-paced two wheel thrill rides.
Bonded in a tight-knit group, bike messengers in the Big Apple have formed their own subculture, part of it on display but not fully explored. Their real stories would likely be very interesting.
To heighten the bracing experience of daredevil biking, “Premium Rush” relies on actual high-action activity with intense, physical stunts. The element of realism is stimulating for any action junkie.
DVD RELEASE UPDATE
I never would have imagined that a good thriller, with plenty of adrenaline rush, would have come from a Norwegian film, but “Headhunters” is the proof.
When released theatrically, “Headhunters” generated a lot of good buzz, but in limited release it wasn’t able to attract a wide audience.
Your good fortune is that “Headhunters” is being released on DVD, with the added bonus that the film may be watched in English without annoying subtitles.
Aksel Hennie’s Roger is a charming scoundrel and Norway’s most accomplished headhunter. He is living far beyond his means and has taken to stealing art to subsidize his lavish lifestyle.
When his wife, a beautiful art gallery owner, introduces him to a former mercenary (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who possesses an extremely valuable painting, Roger decides to risk it all to get his hands on it.
Not surprisingly, things go horribly wrong, and Roger turns out to be the hunted man. “Headhunters” is clever, scary, thrilling and even funny. This is an independent film jewel not to be missed.
Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.