David Koepp has written screenplays for the likes of influential filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, Ron Howard, David Fincher and Sam Raimi. Whenever the biggest of the bunch, aka “the beard” has a script he needs re-worked, he usually calls on his boy Koepp to punch it up. Five films now under his belt as a director and Koepp doesn’t seemed to have gleaned all that much from his phenomenally successful mentors. With movies like Stir of Echoes or his adaptation of the Stephen King novella “Secret Garden” – which became Secret Window and was almost saved by a memorable performance from star Johnny Depp – Koepp as a director still hasn’t graduated to the world of three dimensional thinking. His films look great on paper, no doubt, but with him at the helm they don’t become nothing more than lifeless, flat ideas. It’s as if he’s unable to separate his director half from his screenwriter half and make the necessary sacrifices or changes to ideas he fell in love with on paper.
Premium Rush is a simple idea that grows more complicated than it needs to be as its story unfolds on the silver screen. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a bike messenger being chased across Manhattan by a nemesis that desperately wants the package he carries. Simple, right? Well, not really. As law school dropout Wilee, nicknamed “Coyote” Gordon-Levitt is one of those characters who’d rather feel the freedom and adrenaline rush of racing through city streets on a bicycle with no brakes, than being chained to an office desk. “Roadrunner” might have been a better nickname since Wilee is somewhat of a hero to his fellow bike messengers which include, estranged girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) and roided up rival Manny (Wole Parks).
The real “Wile E. Coyote” chasing our hero across Manhattan is Michael Shannon’s crooked cop Bobby Monday who as fate would have it, is no “Super Genius”. Monday’s got a bit of a gambling problem and his debt to some folks in the Chinese underworld is up to 17 grand. To wipe the slate clean, they propose he intercept an envelope in Wilee’s possession, given to him by university student Nima, (Jaime Chung) who it just so happens is Vanessa’s son-to be ex-roommate.
It’s not really important what’s in the envelope or its true value, because the thrill of films of this type is in the chase. Unfortunately, Koepp doesn’t see it that way, stuffing his screenplay with plenty of details and minor bits of back-story that are ultimately boring. What’s even worse is the non-linear fashion in which he tells his story. From an opening accident where Wilee soars through the air, having obviously been hit by a car, the story rewinds, leaps forward and rewinds several times. It’s enough to make even Quentin Tarantino’s head spin. Truth of the matter is, as more details involving the histories of the main players and their importance to the story is revealed, they turn out to be not all that interesting and we don’t really care. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the entire story is supposedly unfolding over a ninety minute period.
Chung, a second generation Korean-American, born in San Francisco, is forced to put on a terrible Chinese accent that sadly distracts from the importance of her character’s plight. Parks exists just to give Gordon-Levitt a rival for the affections of Ramirez and later becomes a monkey wrench stupidly thrown in to jam up the machinations of the plot. And then there’s Shannon, known for playing disturbed yet fascinatingly complex characters who feels more like a clown than the primary antagonist. Shannon repeatedly laughs at the gravity of his situation with an annoying cackle, even while gangster thugs do a number on his face. He’s no real threat to Gordon-Levitt or anyone for that matter. Their various confrontations only occur through dumb luck and are ultimately brief with Gordon-Levitt escaping on his bicycle each and every time. Though the actor is known for stealing films away from his co-stars, as the lead. Gordon-Levitt’s character is not very bright or even likable. Yes, it’s actually him performing many of his own stunts, but the one occasion where his bland character shows any spark of life is a flashback scene where he woos Ramirez with his charm and appetite for the danger of their occupation. She doesn’t fare any better, basically playing “the girl” who doesn’t fully get involved until the eleventh hour when she finally figures out what is going on.
And what really is going on? Well Premium Rush complicates matters with its convoluted story. With the NYPD at his disposal the idea of having Shannon’s corrupt cop track Gordon-Levitt across Manhattan is a simple one. Too bad the notion of giving Shannon such power isn’t even suggested. Koepp chooses to bounce up and down various points in his story’s timeline and introduce boring and generic characters. At times the film feels like an homage to 80′s chase movies and not in a respectful way. Too many bits meant to be cute and familiar cliches are thrown in that make the proceedings feel amateurish. One involves Gordon-Levitt continually running into the same bicycle patrol cop who is determined to bring him down. (I live in New York and have never seen a cop on a bicycle. Vegas maybe.) The production does make handsome use of the Big Apple – though the geography of the story is all over the place, rather expectantly – with familiar locations like Chinatown, Broadway and the Columbia University campus and library. Cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen has shot a beautiful looking movie, its just that for a film about the thrill of the chase, it feels rather pedestrian.