It’s amazing how much the right casting can elevate a production. Consider the character of Wilee in Premium Rush, a thrill-seeking bike courier who, after picking up an express delivery from his girlfriend’s roommate (Jamie Chung), finds himself in the midst of an immigration conspiracy involving the Chinese Triads and a corrupt police officer. A lesser, more conventional actor (let’s call him Paul Walker) might have interpreted the role as that of a street-wise rebel with a heart of gold, resulting in a generic B-level action thriller, the sort one forgets within twenty minutes of walking out of the theatre. Instead, director David Koepp hired Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who can read between the lines of even a deliberately sparse screenplay.
Take, for example, the way Wilee presents himself to his love interest and colleague Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). As written, their dialogue consists largely of sports flick posturing: “No, never death. Breaks are death.” However, his eyes betray a self-deprecating lucidity, as if the adrenaline junkie knew deep down something was wrong with him. By the same token, Paul Walker might have played up the macho camaraderie with rival courier Manny (Wolé Parks), but Gordon-Levitt allows our hero to get annoyed with the adolescent banter, emphasising the unhinged loner with a beautiful mind rather than the typical “us versus the man” fantasy.
Besides, Manny mainly serves as an excuse for additional bike-related set pieces. For a film in which the protagonist consistently favours the latter part of fight-or-flight, Premium Rush features some spectacular stunts, as characters zoom across moving traffic, down staircases, up ramps, atop car roofs, and even beneath rolling trucks. Most of these turn out the real deal too, performed by professional cyclists and sometimes Gordon-Levitt himself. You’ve never seen Paul Walker do that, have you?
This is not to say Koepp doesn’t use digital effects to enhance certain sequences, most notably the occasional glimpses into Wilee’s thought processes as he calculates the outcome of every potential zigzag. Time freezes à la The Matrix (1999), and a white arrow appears to indicate which path is being considered. Then our hero speeds through and falls prey to a swerving cab or oncoming bus, sort of like his namesake Wile E. Coyote. These creative touches help maintain a constant sense of danger throughout and, more to the point, romanticise the profession of bike messenger, investing us not just in the action but also in the protagonists’ very lifestyle.
Otherwise, Premium Rush tends to steer clear of any sort of gravitas, as exemplified by all the in-jokes with character names, from the hardcore couple christened Marco (Sean Kennedy) and Polo (Kymberly Perfetto) to the villainous Bobby Monday’s (Michael Shannon) forged alias, Forrest J. Ackerman, because evidently “Bobby Monday” doesn’t generate enough laughs on its own. The soundtrack also keeps things breezy, though some of the song choices grate on me, not because I don’t appreciate retro alternative rock as much as the next guy but because their rampant irony strikes me as overkill. Yes, this is a lighthearted movie. I could have got that without the speakers blaring, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Woohoo!” every few minutes.
Moreover, the actors already convey this lively tone. I don’t just mean Gordon-Levitt but the entire cast, including Aasif Mandvi as sardonic dispatcher Raj, Christopher Place as an exasperated bike cop on our hero’s trail, and Michael Shannon as the aforementioned Officer Monday, who keeps gambling his second chances away and ranting about youthful vernaculars when he should be focusing on the prize. Shannon brings so much wit and energy to his performance that we’d almost root for the perpetual screw-up if we didn’t think he’d lose Wilee’s package five minutes after getting his hands on it.
Monday’s incompetence lends much credibility to the story, as does the small scope of his ploy. Sure, Wilee is established as a skilled athlete with an above-average I.Q., but he couldn’t survive a typical blockbuster conspiracy in which the baddies try to avoid further investigation by increasing their blood trail exponentially (because, you know, that makes sense). A more thoughtful thriller, Premium Rush focuses on a single villain with limited means and presents a surprisingly grounded version of the Triads, one with which a believable human being might be tempted to deal. I suppose, despite its low ambitions, the screenplay proves worthy of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I can only imagine what would’ve happened if the filmmakers had tailored it to my theoretical Paul Walker instead.