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Action movie not quite premium, but still a rush
No pretense to this tense piece of pop cinema
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, and Dania Ramirez star in a scene from "Premium Rush." - photo by Sarah Shatz

‘Premium Rush’

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jamie Chung, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Aasif Mandvi

Rated: PG-13, for some violence, intense action sequences and language

Runtime: 1 hour, 31 minutes

Bottom line: High quality cheese

I’m a big fan of movies without pretense, movies that embrace rather than try to hide what they really are.

“Premium Rush” is a playful, absurd, cheesy action movie, and it’s greatest charm is that it fully embraces those qualities. It’s a movie we’d label bad if we view it as art, but it’s extremely entertaining as a piece of pop cinema.

Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a speed freak with a thinly veiled death wish. He had pretty much finished law school and was on the verge of a legal career, when he shifted gears and became a bicycle messenger. He zooms and slashes through bumper-to-bumper New York City traffic on a fixed gear bicycle, taunting his own demise every day.

Death begins to stalk him in a different way when he is assigned to deliver a mysterious envelope to Chinatown. Nima (Jamie Chung), who happens to be the roommate of Wilee’s girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), hires Wilee.
Immediately, a hot-headed police officer named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) tries to seize the envelope from Wilee. When Wilee refuses to give it to him, the chase is on.

Monday pursues Wilee with his car, frequently nearly running him over, while a bike cop (Christopher Place) chases Wilee and provides a steady stream of slapstick gags.

The entire movie consists of chase scenes, which are only interrupted long enough to give us flashbacks telling us what is in the envelope, why it matters so much to Nima, and why this crooked cop named Monday needs to get his hands on it.

This all sounds rather heavy, and it could be in a different movie, but even when life and death are on the line in “Premium Rush,” we don’t take it seriously.

Gordon-Levitt and Shannon, both highly respected actors, totally embrace the bravado of the movie. They venture into “overcooked movie star performance” territory, which totally fits a movie so clearly built on visual concepts.

Wilee frequently rides into dangerously cluttered intersections. Each time this happens, the film freezes in time and Wilee considers his options. If he veers in one direction, he runs into a baby carriage, and we watch that awful, potential collision happen. If he veers a different direction, he runs into a cab, takes a dive over the handle bars and crashes into the cab’s windshield.

Each of these imaginary wrecks are graphic enough to induce squirms, and that’s exactly the point. The filmmakers revel in just how painful each accident would be.

The technique is unquestionably ridiculous and exploitative, but it’s just as undeniably fun.

“Premium Rush” tries hard to glamorize life as a bike messenger. The thrill of speeding down New York streets at 60 mph, dodging car doors that open unexpectedly, deftly jumping the curb and dismounting the bike like a wild west showman, etc. All of that works well.

But the movie also hypes up the fraternity among messengers. They compete for commissions but always have each other’s backs, party hard and all the rest of it.

This is the most tedious, strained part of the movie. It doesn’t feel like an authentic world, and during these sequences, the writing and acting go from enjoyably over-the-top to cringe-inducingly bad.

“Premium Rush” comes to us with an interesting past and present.

It was originally scheduled for a January release before being moved to August. Late summer is definitely a better release frame than the January dumping ground, which shows that Sony, the distributor, developed more confidence in it after the film was completed. The movie will also surely benefit from Gordon-Levitt’s massive exposure in “The Dark Knight Rises.”

My experience with the movie was similar to what the Sony bosses must have gone through.

I expected very little from “Premium Rush,” but it succeeds well beyond those expectations. It isn’t a high quality movie, but it is extremely entertaining.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on