'Premium Rush' seems to be in perpetual motion

September 2, 2012
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a daredevil bike messenger who is the fastest in New York City.

I think the term “B-movie” got lost in translation somewhere, as it if refers to a lesser film that is campy, cheap, unintentionally funny or any combination thereof. “B” has somehow come to represent “bad.”

Originally designed to play along with a larger-budgeted film in a double feature at the theater, B-movies were perhaps less expensive, did not have top-tier stars, and adhered tightly to the conventions of the genre in which they were categorized. They were essentially like B-sides to old 45s (Those are a type of recorded music product that preceded CDs and MP3s, kids!), but were no less impressive sometimes than their bigger-budgeted counterparts.

Over the years, they have morphed into exploitation, horror and gore, and ultimately crap you now only see on the SyFy Network like “Sharktopus.”

But many may forget some of the best films of all time were actually considered B-movies, films such as “Psycho,” “Blood Simple,” and - one could argue - “Pulp Fiction.”

It may be ambitious to lump the ludicrously named “Premium Rush” in with those superlative works, but it is a film that wholly embraces its genre trappings and plays by its rules with a taut and thrilling precision, representing some of the best action on the screen this year.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee (pronounced “Wiley,”), a New York City bike messenger who is given an envelope that is of particular interest to one corrupt Detective Monday (played by Michael Shannon), who stops at very little in order to get his mitts on it.

The rest plays out as a maze-like race winding through the overcrowded Manhattan streets as Wilee attempts to evade his pursuer. As a premise, it’s as basic as Wilee’s bike: no fancy gears and mirrors, and - most importantly - no brakes. Producers of the film claim that most of its footage is authentic, filled with narrow-miss collisions between bike and car. And while I will leave its legitimacy to those who like to view their Blu-Rays frame by frame, I will say that they have created some aggressively harrowing chase sequences, regardless of how they achieved it. Much credit goes to cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen, who seems to have affixed cameras in angles that make it feel as though asphalt is flying up in our faces.

When the pedals aren’t cranking, it also helps that writer/director David Koepp has enlisted two strong leads who both not only embrace their roles, but also seem to embody them as well. Gordon-Levitt’s wiry, athletic build looks every bit that of a man whose workday is spent in perpetual motion. And Shannon, a fascinating actor who continues to float under the mainstream radar, feels as though he’s been plucked from the set of a gritty ‘70s cop flick from William Friedkin or Sidney Lumet.

It’s a shame the film was saddled with such a lame title (which is apparently bicycle messenger speak, but sounds like a Starbucks order), as I think the film delivers the perfect late-summer jolt of action that has sadly been absent from so many A-grade films that have populated theaters.

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