Hell on two wheels

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush

Why, when they’ve already been done every which way that they could possibly be done, are car chases still so ubiquitous in the movies? Pursuit by aerial vehicles has also been done to death; by boat, somewhat less so. I can even think of a few flicks involving train chases – a concept that seems pretty silly when you consider that where a train can go is pretty much constrained by the direction of the tracks that it’s on. But a certain portion of the moviegoing public still seems to get an adrenaline rush out of the sight of fast machines fleeing other fast machines, interspersed at intervals with destructive collisions.

Why, then, have so few movies been made in which the vehicle of choice is a bicycle? Is it not speedy enough, not noisy enough? Does it lack the tonnage of metal to wreak a satisfactory amount of havoc when a collision does happen? Pedestrians who have ever been struck by a careening bike would likely beg to differ.

And anyone who has ever relied on a bicycle for personal transport in an urban environment will tell you that even a relatively sedate ride to work – traveling at a sane speed in the correct direction on one-way streets – can be a hair-raising, sometimes life-threatening experience. I discovered that myself during a lengthy transit strike when I was commuting by bike from my home on the Upper West Side to my workplace in SoHo. I got “doored” more than once by taxi drivers: a cyclist’s nightmare in which the bike stops suddenly and the erstwhile rider keeps going, airborne. In one such instance I fractured an elbow. It’s probably much worse nowadays, with even more oblivious pedestrians stepping into the street without so much as a glance at oncoming traffic, glued to their cellphones.

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That was back in the days before e-mail was invented – the heyday of the New York City bicycle messenger. In fact, the abovementioned SoHo workplace was a media arts service organization in whose freight elevator was often seen the bicycle of a certain aspiring young filmmaker: a short, bespectacled black man with a goatee, very much resembling Mars, the character whom he later played in She’s Gotta Have It. Yes, it was by moonlighting as a bicycle messenger that Spike Lee kept body and soul together early in his career.

Back then, the bike messengers were the only way to get small packets of time-sensitive information around the City, and they were everywhere. The cutthroat competitiveness and daredevil maneuvers of the riders were legend. There probably aren’t as many of them around anymore, but their exploits certainly are enough to sustain a good chase movie. We finally get one in David Koepp’s new two-wheeled action flick, Premium Rush.

It’s a lightweight, fairly mindless bagatelle, but its 90-minute length – shot in close to real time – flies by, giving us a convincing cyclist’s-eye view of the mean streets of Manhattan. Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings his usual fresh-faced appeal to the role of Wilee (a/k/a the Coyote), a law school dropout who loves to ride and has earned a reputation as the best, fastest, most adroit bike messenger of them all. He rides a “fixie”: a single-geared, steel-framed bike with no brakes at all. “Brakes are death,” he avers. And in several delicious slo-mo scenes where Wilee is approaching an intersection and in the space of a few nanoseconds evaluates which of several possible paths will kill him (or someone else) and which will not, we come to understand what constitutes his particular brand of genius.

What makes the day of our story different from others for Wilee is the fact that he has unknowingly picked up a delivery of a ticket worth about $50,000 within the context of a Chinese moneylending network. It has to get to its destination within 90 minutes in order for Wilee’s girlfriend’s roommate (Jamie Chung), who is living in the US on a student visa, to smuggle her young son out of China to rejoin her. That “Premium Rush” assignment would normally be an easy piece of work for Wilee, but in this case, somebody else knows what’s in that envelope: a crooked cop with impulse control and anger management issues named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who has gotten himself way over his head in gambling debt.

Monday confronts Wilee and demands his package; when Wilee declines, citing professional standards, he pursues Wilee by car, trying to run him off the road. Another cop on bike patrol (Christopher Place) observes Wilee’s illegal evasive maneuvers and jumps into the mix, adding an element of comedy to the deadly chase. There’s a bit of throwaway romantic folderol regarding whether Wilee’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) actually prefers him or his rival for the crown of top messenger, the musclebound Manny (Wolé Parks). But most of the fun is in the wild chase, and in Shannon’s manic, bulging-eyed, scenery-munching turn as the rogue cop.

Don’t go see Premium Rush expecting to be intellectually stimulated or deeply moved. Breaking Away it ain’t. But if you like a chase movie, and appreciate a filmmaker’s efforts to make one that’s somewhat different from the usual, you’ll find this flick an invigorating spin in the park.

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