Friday, August 1, 2014

Summer of Films: Premium Rush (2012)

Premium Rush is one of those minor films that few people notice when Hollywood makes them. It wasn’t a blockbuster. It wasn’t aimed at all audiences and blanded-down accordingly. It didn’t have a hundred million dollar budget. It didn’t have a huge, bankable star. What it did have was solid actors, an interesting story with a compelling set of stakes. The result is a very enjoyable film.
Premium Rush stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, a law school graduate who has decided he would rather be a bicycle messenger than a lawyer. As a bicycle messenger, he flies around New York City on his bike, weaving in and out of traffic to deliver packages. In so doing, he competes with other bicycle messengers for assignments, which is how they get paid. He has recently run into a rough spot with his girlfriend, who is also a messenger, because she sees him as irresponsible for not becoming a lawyer and because he rides recklessly. He doesn’t even have brakes on his bike.
As the story unfolds, Wilee is sent to the university to pick up a package. He must deliver it to Chinatown by a certain deadline. He collects this package from a girl he knows named Nima. He believes the package belongs to the school. As he goes to leave the university, however, he is approached by a man demanding the return of the package. Wilee refuses and a chase begins.

At this point, the story flashes back, a technique which will be used repeatedly to tell the story in a slightly non-chronological manner. Through the flashbacks, we learn that the package belongs to Mina, not the school and we learn that the man is trying to steal it from her. As the chase continues, we learn that the man is Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a gambling-addicted New York Police officer with little in the way of self-control. He owes lots of money to a local loan shark named Mr. Lin. Lin tells Bobby that he can pay off all his debts if he grabs the package from Mina. This now becomes a matter of life and death to Bobby. Meanwhile, as Wilee finds out what is in the package, it becomes equally important to him to get the package where it needs to be.
Why This Film Works
Let me start with this: this film is not a hidden gem. This is not The Usual Suspects or Triangle. You aren’t going to add this film to your list of best ever films. But Premium Rush doesn’t try to be that either. What Premium Rush tries to be is simply an enjoyable film that tells an interesting story, and in that regard it succeeds completely. Indeed, this is akin to so many of the secondary movies of the 1980’s which never had a chance to be Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future, but which found good-sized audiences and have continued to be shown on television today because they were genuinely good films.
And what makes this film work is actually very simple: you are interested in the characters and what happens to them. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very likeable as Wilee. JGL comes across as someone you want to spend time with and know more about. At the same time, his story is full of conflict and mystery which attracts our attention. For example, you have the mystery of what’s in the package and you have the question of whether or not he will succeed with delivering the package. What’s more, these issues are unveiled bit by bit, with the level of challenge or intensity or mystery growing as the story moves forward. What starts as a simple package delivery, becomes a contested package delivery, becomes being chased by a stranger, becomes being chased by a madman... a madman cop, becomes a life and death delivery for a very good reason. Thus, as the story progresses, your interest grows as the intensity of the challenge and the stakes keep rising.
Next, you add Michael Shannon. Shannon is another compelling actor and, here, he is given tremendous freedom. Not only is he allowed to play the type of psycho he excels at, but the film lets him build up to it. In fact, just as Wilee’s character builds throughout, so does Shannon. When you first see Shannon, he’s just a guy. Soon you learn his occupation, which proves a problem for Wilee. Then you learn why he wants the package and you see his story slowly start spinning out of control at the same time he’s making Wilee’s life spin out of control.

All of this results in very relatable and very interesting conflicts, which keep this film interesting in a way that something like Green Lantern simply does not. What you have here are two characters who are inherently interesting even apart from the plot. Both have things they must achieve due to flaws in their characters. Then they are put in direct conflict because of their competing missions – deliver the package versus intercept the package. At the same time, they are surrounded by obstacles. The result is to multiply our interest in the story by each of these conflicts and obstacles.

By comparison, a film like Green Lantern relies entirely on the promise of one huge fist fight to make the film pay off. They typically add some generic “need for self-improvement” in the main character to fool you into thinking the character grows, but there is no real conflict apart from the forty minutes of punching you will endure. The result is a film devoid of interesting conflicts.
That’s why this film works: because the actors imbue the characters with life and the characters are engaged in an ever-increasing series of conflicts which make you more and more interested as the film progresses.

So in the end, I would describe this film this way: this is a very enjoyable film that will grab and hold your interest. It is a good film and it is an excellent way to spend two hours. You won’t feel like you’ve seen the next Star Wars or Maltese Falcons, but you will be happy that you watched it. And that makes this film worthwhile.



Tennessee Jed said...

don't you just love it when a film doesn't pretend to be more than it is, and does that well? This is where my hope for films dwells, not with the big blockbusters that are actually just busts.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Andrew! This one is definitely on my to watch list. JGL is a great actor!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Totally!! And that's what I loved here. This film never tries to do more than it does. It is very happy telling its story without trying to jack this up into being a blockbusters. And the result is a film that is simply enjoyable and engaging with no pressure to be more than that.

This is where I look for the best films too, not the blockbusters. This is where you find the quality films that you turn to time and again for entertainment long after the blockbusters are forgotten.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome, Ben! I have really come to like JGL as well and this film gives him a nice little vehicle to present himself as an actor without anything like a Batsuit or a bigger-named actor standing in the way.

And don't underestimate Shannon either. He's really good in this.

tryanmax said...

Another thing worth noting that sets Premium Rush apart from films like Green Lantern is how the good guy and the bad guy are established. Sure, Wilee is our narrator, our access to this story, but that is not the only evidence for him being the good guy. Nor is even his weird ideal of being a bike messenger when he could've been a lawyer. In other films, these would be enough, but Premium Rush doesn't settle.

Rather, it's the fact that Wilee is intensely loyal to the job he has to do. His job is to deliver the package, plain and simple, and while a lesser messenger might have taken the bribes or succumb to threats, he is fierce about making his delivery, even before he understands the gravity of the stakes. This changes the timbre of the film from "good guy delivers package" to "it's damn lucky that this guy was chosen to deliver this package." This is true, everyday heroism on display.

From here, establishing the villain is quite simple. Bobby Monday is clearly not doing his job as a cop, cavorting with and behaving like a criminal. Yes, the corrupt cop is something of a trope, but again, Premium Rush doesn't settle. Monday isn't just corrupt for corruption's sake, which would also be enough for a lesser film, he doesn't simply take some kickback from some guy for some reason. Rather, his predilections have placed him in a bind. Though wrong, his actions are the understandable result of a pattern of bad decision-making.

A much simpler way to put this, though its meaning is generally lost as platitudinous, is that Premium Rush is a conflict of character. We know Wilee is a good guy because of his integrity, not just because he helps little old ladies cross streets or because he self-deprecates with a sardonic lilt. And while this film isn't complex enough to show Monday's good side, we very quickly realize he is the bad guy because his goal is to undermine Wilee's integrity from the start.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's very insightful, and I agree. Unlike blockbusters, this film doesn't just settle for having some character say something like, "You're a real hero!" and assume that's enough to establish the characters. Instead, it proves his character through his actions. And as you note, in this case, it's his sense of duty -- a sense that actually gets tested in the middle of the film.

I agree about Monday too. He doesn't seem like a bad guy on a personal level, but he makes bad decisions and he's clearly addicted to gambling and easy solutions, and that makes him a menace and soon a villain.

And what the ultimate conflict of this film represents is duty versus anti-duty, and that is interesting to us. But again, there are many more levels to this too, each of which comes from the characters and their traits, and that enriches the film and pulls you in.

wulfscott said...

In a blockbuster, the fate of the Earth, humanity, and the main characters are in jeopardy - yet there is no real tension as we know that it will all come out in the end. New York City gets trashed, but that happens so often in film that it's no longer notable : )
The stakes in this film are actually higher, because we don't know what will happen to Wilee. Or at least I don't, which is why I now want to see this one.
Thanks for the review!

wulfscott said...

"He doesn’t even have brakes on his bike." Many bike messengers like the fixed gear bicycle, where the gear is fixed to the back wheel, so the pedals are in motion whenever the rear wheel is in motion. NO brakes, no other gears. To slow or stop, you slow the pedals down. Pedalling backwards causes the bike to go backwards. It is a simple design, and easy to maintain, but the learning curve is steep.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks for explaining that, Wulfscott. I was wondering why he had no brakes and had assumed he was too poor to get it fixed.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben and wulfscott, They never actually say why he wouldn't have brakes except that he says having breaks will kill you -- "kind of a hesitation kills" message which fits his character.

AndrewPrice said...

wulfscott, Agreed. In blockbusters, the whole end of the world thing no longer grabs us because we've lost the shock value and the idea is too large to feel personally. But here, you do become invested in Wilee and what happens to him because it's so easy to relate to his story.

Let us know your thoughts when you see the film. :D

Unknown said...

You make me want to see this film, Andrew! But also, I want to know your list of "the secondary movies of the 1980’s which found good-sized audiences and have continued to be shown on television today because they were genuinely good films."

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks John! I hope you enjoy it.

I don't really have a list per se, but I'll try to come up with something.

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