David Koepp is an extremely successful screenwriter. Among his credits are Jurassic Park and its first sequel The Lost World (my favorite scene in that movie is when Koepp, in an uncredited appearance is devoured by the T-Rex while it rampages in San Diego), and the most recent Indiana Jones movie. He’s had nowhere near that success as a director, but that may change with his new film Premium Rush, starring Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as “Wilee”, a law school graduate who eschewed the bar exam and works instead as a bicycle messenger in New York City.
It’s difficult, dangerous work and Wilee insists on riding a “steel-frame, single gear” bike with no brakes. You see, Wilee is convinced that “brakes kill”. He is a maniac on wheels, weaving in and out of traffic, pedestrians, sidewalks and anywhere else he needs to go to get whatever he’s delivering to wherever it needs to go. Since his bike doesn’t coast, he’s pedaling all day long. He works for “Security Courier” and the security of one particular package is at issue in this film, which is a “clock” picture. By that I mean, a movie that takes place in a very narrow, finite amount of time. The structure isn’t linear, but by the end, the absolute deadline set early in the film will pass.
Wilee is having a bad day. He’s fighting with his girlfriend, Vanessa (“Dania Ramirez”) over his having blown off her graduation from school. She’s being forced to move out of the apartment she shares with “Nima” (“Jamie Chung”) because of some mysterious personal issue. “Manny” (Wole Parks) is a muscle bound messenger for the same service both Wilee and Vanessa work for, and he is helping Vanessa move while trying to help himself to Vanessa.
Near the end of the day, Wilee gets an order to pick up a package at his law school alma mater and deliver it to Chinatown. It’s an envelope that Nima has and the contents are very important. It’s a single scrap of paper, but it represents a lot of money and someone else wants to get his hands on it. That someone is NYPD Detective “Bobby Monday” (Michael Shannon). Monday needs that scrap of paper to bale himself out of a major mess that gambling, borrowing money from shylocks to repay his gambling debts and then losing the borrowed money has gotten him into. He’s given a line on this valuable scrap of paper and its whereabouts, and he intends to get it one way or another.
So the crux of the few hours that this movie covers, going back at times to illustrate the backstory behind certain plot points is will this scrap of paper be delivered to its intended recipient before that hard and fast deadline. That makes for excellent tension, which Koepp exploits expertly. The visuals, particularly a unique perspective of Wilee’s as he’s about to enter an intersection where there is no apparent path through the obstructions, as his computer-like mind considers the various scenarios before finding the only way through, are terrific.
Why is this scrap of paper so valuable? It turns out that Nima has been working three jobs to save money during her time in the U.S., in order to pay for her son to be sent to her. She’s here on a student Visa, and because of something from her past, the Chinese government won’t let her son join her through normal channels. As a result she’s worked like a dog to be able to afford to smuggle him out of the country. But, the contact she has who has arranged the smuggling of Nima’s son doesn’t take cash. Only the promise of cash that this slip of paper represents, backed by a Chinese crime syndicate that Nima gave the cash to in return for the paper. The paper is as good as cash to whoever redeems it and that’s why Detective Monday wants it.
Gordon-Leavitt may or may not deliver his package, but he definitely delivers a strong performance. A tension, action/adventure without a lot of shots fired, without a huge body count, and that still keeps your interest. That makes Premium Rush a winner.