August is increasingly becoming the Nevada desert for film studios, a place to bury things where no one will see them or find them.
So today's release of Premium Rush is all the more perplexing. A fun chase film starring the likable Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with a deliciously over-the-top performance by Michael Shannon as a villainous crooked cop, and some X Games-worthy bike stunts, Premium Rush deserves a better fate than to be unceremoniously dumped in theaters as moviegoers focus on returning to school, last-minute vacations, and the start of the NFL season.
Directed and co-written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds), Premium Rush is a 90-minute adrenaline rush of thrills and fun as a bike messenger named Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) fearlessly races through crowded and dangerous New York city streets and sidewalks to deliver an important package. Bobby Monday (Shannon) is the New York detective with gambling debts to the Chinese mob who is trying to stop the delivery to wipe clean his financial obligation.
There's not much else to the plot, and when Premium Rush attempts to bolster the story line with character back stories, relationships, and motivations it often gets bogged down: We learn that Wilee completed law school but never took the bar exam; he'd rather feel alive on the city streets, dodging cars, pedestrians, and other obstacles than be a zombie wearing a suit pent up in an office building. He has a thing for another bike messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), but she ended their relationship because Wilee lacks ambition, while she spent years to graduate from college. Manny (Wole Parks) is the highly competitive and often obnoxious bike messenger who desperately wants to get with Vanessa, and is determined to show up Wilee.
None of this really matters to the film -- or us -- and feels shoehorned into the film as a tenet of good screenwriting, which dictates that we must truly know the protagonist to really care about him. But Levitt has such an easy-going demeanor on screen it's impossible not to root for him, especially as he evades death about every nine minutes in an attempt to deliver a package more important than he could possibly know.
And when he does know the contents and what it means to the woman sending it, he of course cares even more about delivering the envelope, while we just want the movie to return to the cool chase sequences.
Just when the film's momentum starts to buckle under the unnecessary baggage weighing it down, Shannon comes along to lift the film again.
As a crooked cop increasingly desperate, he never crosses the dramatic line as, say, Nicolas Cage in so many of his roles -- to the point it's become a cliche -- but he amps the energy in his scenes for all he's worth. Shannon is campy, but without being too campy. It's a clever and necessary jolt to the drowsy moments of the film by an actor known for playing villains and men who are becoming unhinged (Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter, Boardwalk Empire).
But the real stars are the thrilling first-person camera shots and impressive stunt work as Wilee negotiates the congested streets. Koepp keeps the camera angles low and the action sequences fluid, with graceful cuts rather than the hatchet-to-film editing done to the finale of The Bourne Legacy. It's worth noting that Koepp is primarily a screenwriter and sometime director (Stir of Echoes, Ghost Town) as is Tony Gilroy, who co-wrote the Bourne movies and directed Legacy.
Koepp also wins the creative use of cell phone award for navigating Wilee -- and us -- around the city through animated city models and arrows -- perhaps the next evolution to Google Maps. Even better is Wilee's split-second decision point before a sudden impact with a car as he works through possible safe routes and the probable outcomes -- most ending in bodily injury -- to avoid becoming a bloody smear on the pavement. It's all amusing and fun.
And in the wasteland that is August cinema, that's the best you can hope for.
Directed by David Koepp. Written by Koepp and John Lamps. A Columbia Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action sequences, and language. Running time: 91 minutes.
Critic's rating: ***
Wilee .......... Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Monday ........... Michael Shannon
Vanessa ........... Dania Ramirez
Manny .......... Wole Parks
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.