Underseen Movie: ‘Premium Rush’ Lives Up to Its Name

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2012.

David Koepp’s “Premium Rush” is the best cycling movie in some time. Come to think of it, when was the last time a cycling movie was made and released? I keep thinking it was Hal Needham’s “Rad,” but that came out in 1986. There’s also no topping the classic “Breaking Away,” the cycling movie many aspire to be like. There was also “American Flyers” which was released in 1985 and was written by Steve Tesich, the same one who wrote the screenplay for “Breaking Away.” But when it comes to “American Flyers,” I think its fantastic music score easily upstaged the film itself.

Anyway, none of that matters because “Premium Rush” delivers the goods like any cycling film should, and it does so with terrific acting, sharp writing and what looks like the real thing with a wonderfully severe lack of CGI as we watch these daredevil bike messengers throttle their way through the insanely busy streets of New York City.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, one of the very best bicycle messengers in New York who gets things to where they need to be and on schedule. Of course, this requires him to travel at breakneck speeds through busy traffic where a car can break down at the most inconvenient time, and he also has to deal with various members of the NYPD who have it in for him and others in his line of work. One other thing, Wilee’s bike of choice has only one gear, and he’s taken the brakes off of so that nothing will slow him down. Seriously, that is how he rolls.

Taking this into account, I wonder if Wilee has a death wish or if he’s just an adrenaline junkie. What we do learn about him is that he came close to becoming a lawyer, but the idea of sitting behind a desk in some office did not appeal to him in the slightest. Of course, it probably wouldn’t appeal to anyone who has seen “Office Space.”

His ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), however, entertains thoughts of working in an office as she doesn’t want to be a bike messenger forever, and that’s even though she says it beats waiting tables. There’s also Tito (Anthony Chisholm) who doesn’t let his advanced age make him any less useful in this line of work (nor should it by the way), and Manny (Wolé Parks) who competes with Wilee not just on a bike but for Vanessa as well.

On this one particular day in which this movie takes place, Wilee is delivering a package that has caught the attention of NYPD cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon). Now Bobby wants what Wilee has, but while Wilee is not always one to obey the rules of the road, he does follow the strict guidelines of his job which states messengers will not hand over the package they are delivering to anyone other than who it is meant for. As a result, Bobby begins chasing Wilee down as we find out that this NYPD cop, like any other stupid gambling addict, has a ridiculously high debt to pay off.

The film’s director, David Koepp, is best known as a screenwriter, having written such exciting movies like “Jurassic Park,” “Spider-Man” and “Panic Room.” Along with co-writer John Kamps, Koepp has great fun telling the story of “Premium Rush” in a non-linear fashion. The story goes back and forth in time as the characters’ actions are made very understandable and given more depth throughout. This way of storytelling may alienate certain audience members, but I liked it as it plays around with our perceptions of what we believe to be true. Just when you think you know what’s going on to happen, something comes along which obliterates your predictions.

As a director, Koepp has had varying degrees of success with movies like “The Trigger Effect,” “Stir of Echoes” and “Secret Window,” but here he manages to keep the action exciting and never lets it drag for a second. It also helps that the cycling we see here is done for real, and it makes me wonder how it was choreographed and who these stunt people are. Clearly, they dared to pedal fast while cars come at them in various directions, and even the best cyclists have to be scared in these situations.

Now people may debate about whether or not “Premium Rush” might serve as a recruitment gig for bike messengers, but it also shows how painful it can be when you crash into something, and odds are you will. There’s also a scene during the end credits which shows Levitt’s arm all bloody after he hit the back window of a taxi cab, and that makes up for the lack of a disclaimer.

Levitt has had great success in the last few years with “(500) Days of Summer,” “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” and he is fantastic here as a character named after that coyote who chased the Road Runner endlessly. This role could have been given to some actor who would have annoyed us with their overwhelming ego, but Levitt makes this character likable despite his insane bike-riding habits.

You also have ace character actor Michael Shannon on board as an undeniably dirty cop. It doesn’t matter what movie he’s in because Shannon never disappoints in giving us a great performance. As Bobby Monday, he makes what could have been a mere one-dimensional villain all the more colorful and threatening. We have seen corrupt cops like this one in so many different movies, but Shannon makes him seem more intriguing than what must have originally appeared on the written page.

The rest of the cast includes Dania Ramirez (whom you may remember as AJ’s girlfriend on “The Sopranos”) to the always entertaining Aasif Mandvi, and they succeed in making this movie all the more entertaining to watch. The action is also given an exciting and propulsive score by David Sardy and a beautifully sunny look by cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen. Heck, watching this movie makes you very sweaty even if you are viewing it in a theater or in the comfort of your air-conditioned home.

“Premium Rush” is nothing spectacular, but it is fun to watch. It’s a shame it did not do better business at the box office, but Columbia Pictures did kind of screw up its release. Watching it reminds those of us who do not ride bikes anymore how much fun and very dangerous cycling can be. If nothing else, it does make wearing a helmet while riding a bike far more appealing than it ever has been in the past.

* * * out of * * * *

Jason Reitman Talks With Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern about ‘Breaking Away’

WRITER’S NOTE: This screening took place back in 2011.

Jason Reitman described the last double feature he presented as part of his guest programming at New Beverly Cinema by saying, “Whereas the last few movies I chose were sad in some respects, these two just make you feel good.” After dealing with the downfalls and missed opportunities which were major parts of “Shampoo” and “Boogie Nights,” he finished off his slate of favorites with “Breaking Away” and “Bottle Rocket.”

The first movie shown was “Breaking Away” which was directed by Peter Yates, the same man who made the Steve McQueen classic “Bullitt.” For years it has been considered one of the best sports movies ever made, and it’s also a movie where several young actors got their start together like in “Taps” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Among those actors were Dennis Quaid, Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern. We even got to see a teenage Jackie Earle Haley in it, and he has since gone from career oblivion to critical acclaim for his performances in “Little Children” and “Watchmen.”

Reitman asked how many people in the audience were seeing this film for the first time, and many hands, including mine, immediately went up. To this he replied, “I am so jealous!”

On “Breaking Away,” Reitman described it as a movie you associate with watching with your father, and one which captures the lives of twenty somethings very well in the indecisions of where to go from high school; unsure of what to do with the rest of their lives. It’s also a great story about class wars in society; of those who have everything and those who never have enough. Upon looking for trivia about “Breaking Away,” Reitman found the film was originally two screenplays. One was called “The Cutters” which became the name of the people from the working-class environment, and the other one was about the bike race the characters train for.

Joining Reitman for this screening were Dennis Christopher who played the endlessly obsessive bike rider Dave Stoller, and Daniel Stern who played Cyril. Reitman usually had his guests hidden from sight before introducing them, but they were already in the theater giving autographs and posing for pictures which got posted on Facebook. Both Quaid and Stern also said they were so envious of those who were seeing this for the first time.

Reitman started off by asking them if they knew they were working on something very special. Stern was the first to reply:

That was my first movie,” Stern said. “I had never been in a movie before, and so I thought they were all like that. There is a wonderful simplicity to the movie, to the script, to the way the movie was made and the way it comes across. It does have a lot of depth to it too. I look back at it thinking, that was just an incredibly unique experience. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know where the camera was, and I didn’t know anything about that!”

Christopher, on the other hand, had worked in movies before with acclaimed directors like Robert Altman and Federico Fellini, so he knew a bit about being on big sets. The experience of making “Breaking Away” proved to be a bit different though.

“The thing that really made it special was because after that horrible first day of being a big Italian impersonator, because they made me all dark and I had my hair slicked back, black shirt, a tight waistline, etc. He was supposed to look like a ‘Saturday Night Fever’ guy,” Christopher said. “He (Yates) wanted him to be that kind of Italian. And I thought, why the fuck did they hire me? I looked like Lily Tomlin would when dressed up like men! That’s exactly what I looked like! I was waiting for them to glue hair on my chest!”

“I was so shaken, and the next day I came onto the set and I just burst into tears,” Christopher continued. “I told Peter that I just can’t do this and he said I KNOW, I KNOW! And we had a big talk with Steven (Tisch, who won an Oscar for his screenplay) and Peter, and then the character evolved; the way he looked and the way he was. So for me that was the special thing of collaborating with a director who cared about what you thought. So, for me I thought whoa, this is amazing!”

Reitman then spoke for those who had this on their minds after Christopher spoke:

“So what you’re saying is that Robert Altman really doesn’t care…”

This got a big laugh from the audience.

After making all the changes with Christopher’s character and making it more like him, they reshot everything and had to wait three weeks to see how it all looked. For those who have seen this movie, you have to agree this was one of the smartest choices Yates made. If Christopher was forced to do an Italian impersonation, it probably would have wrecked the movie.

Reitman also asked Christopher and Stern what kind of bike riding they did before production began. Christopher replied he did the “regular kind” and was never involved in any bike competitions like his character. Stern, on the other hand, said he was not a bike rider which turned out to be perfect for his character.

This led Stern to tell everyone he didn’t even audition for “Breaking Away.” He came into the office to read for Yates, and he was on a phone call nearby and saw him. Once he got off the phone, Yates handed Stern a script and was asked to be on set in a short time.

Unlike a lot of the big productions he had previously been involved in, Christopher said this film was almost completely the opposite of them. They had a very small crew working on it, and there was no overabundance of trailers parked on every street corner.

Barbara Barrie played Dave Stoller’s mother, Evelyn, and she got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. However, it turns out she was a little peeved when she read the script and found there was no big scene for her. Christopher even recalled her telling Yates quite loudly, “WHERE IS MY BIG SCENE?!” So Barrie, Tisch and Yates worked together and did an improvisation which led to that wonderful moment where Evelyn talks about getting her passport and how she always keeps it handy.

People did not expect much from “Breaking Away” while it was being made, but it turned out to be a surprising success which won many awards, and it even spawned a prequel television series in which Haley and Barrie reprised their roles for. Of course, like many movies adapted to television, it lasted only one season. Stern called it “the little engine that could kind of movie,” and he even came to this screening wearing his white “Cutters” t-shirt. Christopher said this and “My Bodyguard” were the first movies for kids which were taken seriously by adults, and he and Stern said people’s overall reaction to it today is still quite powerful.

Christopher also told the audience about when he took his dad, whom he was estranged from at the time, to see “Breaking Away” when it was first released. After it was over, he said his dad came out of it “ruined” and looked quite frail. His dad could not believe how great the movie was, and when people outside the theater asked Christopher for his autograph, he got in line with the others. His dad even acted as his security chief in getting people in the line to move along.

The Q&A ended with both actors asking Reitman, “Is this a good print of the movie we’re showing tonight?”

“We’ll see,”Reitman replied.

Reitman said he had previously seen “Breaking Away” on VHS and laserdisc but seeing it with an audience was something else. The nearly sold-out crowd at New Beverly Cinema really got into the proceedings and cheered loudly throughout. You came out of the theater agreeing with Reitman that “Breaking Away” was as good as reputation has long since suggested.