Old people will always tell you, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” And, regardless of what “’em” they may be talking about, the elderly are usually right about these things.
There was definitely a retro feel to watching Premium Rush, the new action picture starring Joseph Gordon-Robin-Levitt, and it isn’t just because of its similarities to that ’80s Kevin Bacon bike messenger movie, Quicksilver. While the studios today are in the business of making largely bloated, over indulgent, $250 million movies stuffed to the gills with computer generated imagery, Premium Rush (which was made for only about $30 million) feels breezy and fun. But, more importantly, it feels handcrafted, with the vast majority of its stunt work being done on set rather than against a green screen.
Call it Ronin with bicycles.
The Great CGI Debate has been raging for about 20 years now, ever since the T100 morphed his way onto the screen. I don’t want to regurgitate the debate here, but allow me a little indulgence to sum up the opposing sides:
“CGI, when used correctly, is a powerful tool for filmmakers.”
That’s about it. Just repeat these points over and over again.
I do agree with some CGI criticism, that a lot of it does take me out of the film when I know I’m seeing something that isn’t real. But, that’s true of any artifice, isn’t it? I’ve seen Cloud Atlas, which has a huge amount of prosthetic makeup on display. Some of it is a little distracting. Caucasian actors are playing Asian characters in it, for God’s sake! But, is it because the makeup doesn’t work? Or is it because I know what Tom Hanks really looks like, and no matter how seamless the illusion may be, I know he’s been placed in a cocoon of latex?
One of the many pleasures Premium Rush offers is watching real stunt riders doing some pretty incredible things. Nothing seems to have been faked, and that’s mighty cool, indeed.
JGRL plays Wilee and no, that’s not a type. Notice that “Wilee” is like “Wile E.” as in “Coyote.” The hapless Road Runner nemesis is referenced early, and the tone of the film is not unlike a live-action cartoon of sorts.
Wilee is a New York City bike messenger who is a bit of a danger junkie. His bike doesn’t have gears or breaks. He’s also the best guy in the city at what he does. He’s FedEx for the X-Games set. Late one afternoon, Wilee’s boss (played by Aasif Namdvi, essentially reprising his part as Peter Parker’s pizza delivery boss in Spider-Man 2) gives him a very important rush delivery. A Premium Rush, if you will.
Once Wilee gets the package, he’s almost immediately accosted by NYPD Detective Monday (played by Michael Shannon, our future Zod). Wilee knows he’s carrying something very valuable and has to figure what it is while also avoiding the corrupt cop. Added to the mix are Manny, Wilee’s rival biker who wants to race at very inopportune times, and Vanessa, Wilee’s on again/off again girl. (Ever wonder how these male characters are unable to commit to women played by spectacularly attractive actresses? Only in the movies, I guess. As Michael Bluth would say, “You’ve got to lock that down.”)
And, that’s about it. The chase is on and it’s largely a lot of fun. There’s very little in the way of character development. We find out that Wilee is a law school grad who’s never taken the bar exam and is terrified of being an office drone. But, we never learn why. Fortunately, writer/director David Koepp paces the film so briskly that none of those questions really matter.
Mr. Gordon-Levitt is pretty good here. He’s always a likable presence, so Wilee’s lack of character isn’t really a problem — Joe just fills in the gaps. Michael Shannon has even less of a character to work with, but he just goes so far over the top that it’s a hoot. I can imagine Koepp just giving Shannon the note “be bat s—tier,” and Shannon just ran with it. It takes a lot of skill to play this kind of comic villain who still has enough edge to be an actual threat to the hero.
Of course, an added bonus is some terrific location shooting all over Manhattan. The city looks great and gives the movie a nice sense of place. Kudos to stunt coordinator Jill Brown and her team of over 80 stunt performers, riders, and drivers for some genuinely great work.