Back in 1998, I tried to get my mother to watch Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run. She couldn’t handle it and said all the running exhausted her. This film, Premium Rush, directed by David Koepp and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is comparable on several different levels to Lola–simple plot, clever storytelling, and a youthful lead put through physically exhausting turmoil–but in the end we’re left with two things: overwhelming admiration for Gordon-Levitt’s character together with the comedown from ninety-one straight minutes of tension battling exhilaration. (Slamming a Red Bull beforehand isn’t a requirement but does a great job of elevating one’s film experience from an otherwise standard rush to premium status, if you’re interested).
Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) is a bicycle messenger who likes the thrills and dangers of his job; “Fixed gear. No brakes. I can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.” We meet him just as he’s being forcefully knocked off his bike by a taxi cab, and the film backs up from there, bit by bit, to explain the events that brought him to the accident. A special envelope, a dirty police detective, a roommate, a love interest, a rival messenger, and a whole lotta riding have Wilee weaving in and out of traffic, consulting navigational layouts of Manhattan, and calculating escape routes with every pedal for what turns out to be an extremely important delivery. We discover eventually that the opening crash is only part of his problem, and a minor one at that, but all this for a MacGuffin? Yeah, a little bit, but it’s a good one, and done well among the snappy dialogues, driving guitar-punctuated melodies, and fast pace.
The bigger win for this picture is achieved almost completely by Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of Wilee and the way the character was written. If, as viewers, we weren’t fortunate enough to grow up with Gordon-Levitt during his earlier work (Third Rock from the Sun, The Juror, Roseanne) we are certainly familiar with him now (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, upcoming Loopers, and so on); he’s a likable, interesting actor playing a likable, interesting character.
Wilee isn’t just about likability though, he’s skilled, shrewd, and extremely good at his job. He takes us into his world of speed, street smarts, and messenger camaraderie, making virtually everyone else outside his professional circle seem old, boring, or when it comes to the numerous police officers who try to keep up with him, complete stooges. This world is tense, visceral, and often painful, but it’s one we can’t look away from, either. Wilee’s bike becomes almost inseparable from him, an extension of himself, creating trust and resolution when they’re together despite a narrative that opens by showing us that things don’t exactly end well. Some of the most rewarding moments come in knowing that once Wilee climbs back on and starts riding again, things will undoubtedly turn out all right.