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Got action? ‘Premium Rush’ is fast-paced and nerve-jangling

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Posted: Friday, August 31, 2012 7:36 am

We were in the weeds for most of the summer, and browsing the wide release schedule for the next couple months makes it clear that things are only going to get worse before they get any better. But this too shall pass, and before we know it we’ll all be basking in the sweet, comforting glow of the fall movie season, in the company of Steven Spielberg, P.T. Anderson, Ang Lee and James Bond. But rewards must be earned, and for the time being we’ve just gotta grind it out.

As luck would have it, I recently experienced a cinematic adrenaline rush that could very well coast me through the next several weeks. This was courtesy of “Premium Rush,” an astonishingly fast-paced, nerve-jangling gem of an action flick that came out of nowhere to sweep me off my feet and leave me grinning ear to ear. This is the “old stuff” — the good stuff — repackaged with a modern flair that might come across as gimmicky if it wasn’t just so darn effective. Action buffs unite and rejoice, for your deliverance is at hand!

Next week, expect a review of “V/H/S” (available On Demand as of this weekend, and I know I’m not the only gore hound who’s been looking forward to this momentous occasion for months on end), and after that a smattering of random, likely terrible theatrical releases that have yet to be determined.

“Premium Rush” wastes no time before kicking things into high gear. The action opens at 6:33 p.m. in Manhattan as we witness a man on a bike being struck by a car, flying through the air in slow motion before crashing onto the pavement, apparently unconscious or dead. We then jump back 90 minutes and are introduced to Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the unfortunate cyclist from the opening scene. He’s a highly skilled and particularly fearless bike messenger, who chose the low-paying job instead of taking the bar exam because he’s addicted to the incomparable adrenaline rush he gets while barreling through the city at 30 mph on a steel-frame bike with no brakes.

After a brief introductory sequence and first-person narration that establishes Wilee’s unique ability to rapidly establish the most effective way to avoid potentially fatal collisions (his anticipated outcomes of various “wrong turns” are shown as a series of darkly comic and cringe-inducing stunt pieces), our hero is sent to pick up a package at a local university. Immediately after securing the innocuous-looking envelope in his bag, he is accosted by a man (Michael Shannon) insisting that there’s been a mistake, and demanding that the envelope be returned.

An epic battle of wits and wills ensues as Wilee refuses and the mysterious man gives chase through the city, in one of the best and most exhilarating action set pieces I’ve seen in some time. The cat-and-mouse game continues as the man doggedly pursues Wilee, using the surprising resources at his disposal to track down and retrieve the envelope or die trying.

The films stays tight and lean, even as it jumps back and forth in time to establish some backstory on the contents of the envelope — seemingly nothing more than a movie ticket with a smiley face drawn on it — and why the man is willing to kill Wilee to get it. Writer/director David Koepp (better known as a writer, with credits ranging from “Jurassic Park” and “Spider-Man” to “The Paper” and “Panic Room”) deserves kudos for keeping things stylish and well-edited, and moving the story along at a good clip to reach a satisfying payoff.

But the main credit goes to the two leads, with Gordon-Levitt making for an instantly likable and sympathetic hero who gains the viewer’s favor despite being an objectively reckless and therefore morally reprehensible character. (It should be noted that I’ve had something of a man-crush on Gordon-Levitt since “Brick,” so your mileage may vary.)

Yet he is easily upstaged by Shannon, who appears to be having a ball as the determined and slightly demented pursuer. It’s the kind of ultra-broad, borderline-hammy role that would make a fool of lesser actors, but Shannon goes for broke and in the process sells the admittedly ridiculous character lock, stock and barrel. Sells it like gangbusters. It may seem absurd to lobby for a supporting actor Oscar for such a role, but he pretty much makes the movie, and I have a feeling that in six months from now I will have seen very few roles and performances as memorable and flat-out fun as this.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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