Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Premium Rush; keeps you on the edge of the saddle

I don't know if Premium Rush is going to work as well for everyone else as it did for me, because not everyone is crazy enough to ride a pushbike in city traffic. When I started doing it again 10 years back, fresh back from a exhilarating stay in a part of the world where everyone kept asking me why I wasn't worried about the carbombs, it took about three weeks before I decided that for this, life insurance was appropriate. Last Christmas I celebrated something like three years without an accident, though I marked it the way you always do, by having an accident. You don't notice the run of luck or mark its length until it ends. Concussion is no fun. Being too dumb to wear a helmet; well, luckily, I didn't wind up too dumb to cut my own food, leave it at that.

Anyhow, watching people do scary things on bikes; that gets my attention. Since most people who don't ride bikes tend to hate cyclists - especially bike couriers - the rest of the audience may well have been rooting for Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to fall under a bus. What I'm saying is, this may not grab everyone the same way it grabbed me. But, if you're prepared to root for the guy you usually swear at, Premium Rush is about as much fun as you can have at a movie, and more fun than anything I've seen in a cinema all year. 

It's not exactly cerebral; a lot of the action scenes happen just so that people - mostly Wilee - can do cool things on bikes, and in dumber hands this would have been a pretty mediocre movie with a load of bike stunts. But in a development which almost makes me optimistic about Hollywood, someone finally seems to have got the memo about how small stakes and ordinary people can work better than big stakes, if you just take the time to write some decent characters and hire good actors to play them. The writer and director keep everything small and simple, and very easy for the audience to relate to. And so, when Wilee throws himself into traffic, it makes sense and it's scary as a ton of explosions, because in the real world getting something wrong by three inches in traffic is serious business. Most halfway sane people don't even like riding sedately in the bike lane, so most halfway sane people can look at what Wilee is doing and form a pretty good picture of how terrified they'd be. That gets your attention in a way that zombies and vampires are never going to. I spent a lot of the movie alternately shrinking back in my seat and laughing out loud as Wilee headed into something risky and somehow came out the other side. Winningly, Gordon-Levitt let out a little chuckle of his own after most of the real hairy stuff, which was a clever touch.

I ought to make a moment for Gordon-Levitt here because the guy is on fire at the moment. The popular theory is that he's picking all the good roles, but I think the truth is that he's making the good roles. Wilee could have been nothing very much with a different actor (his principal rival in the biking game is adequate, no more, and it's all too easy to imagine Wilee being not much better in other hands). Gordon-Levitt brings him to life without doing anything very obvious or easy to understand. Years ago, Pauline Kael described the difference between De Niro and James Caan as being "With de Niro, you think "Something's eating him." and with Caan you think "He's eating something. Pizza?", and I think Kael would have seen that same de Niro quality to Gordon-Levitt; he's good at being a smart guy trying to do a smart thing (though I saw him at the weekend in The Lookout playing a guy who used to be smart and then took a massive blow to the head, and he's just as good at being someone who can remember being smart but isn't really smart any more).

The plot is so old Hitchcock would have been blowing dust off it; hero has McGuffin, must bring it from A to B while villains of various kinds frustrate him. This is a great plot done right, and it's perfectly adequate in Premium Rush; Wilee is having a bad day, his girlfriend is dumping him, and he gets one last messenger job to drop a package in Chinatown. Meanwhile Michael Shannon's Detective Monday is having a much worse day, and needs to get hold of the same package if he's to salvage anything from it. Since Shannon is broadly playing an idiot with impulse control issues, what ensues is less a battle of wits and more a collision between a sharp, isolated and incredibly flimsy David and a dumb Goliath. Shannon is making a bit of a habit of playing law enforcement officers with control issues, but Detective Monday is nothing like as layered and compelling as Nelson van Alden in Boardwalk Empire. Though Wilee is explicitly compared to the Road Runner, Monday gives the impression that the Coyote called in sick and they had to send Elmer Fudd. 

It's huge fun. Wilee is bedevilled not just by Monday, but by rival messengers stealing his jobs, the girlfriend he can't understand and one lone NYPD bike patrolman who keeps having to peel himself off car doors and landscape as Wilee narrowly eludes arrest for all the accidents he's causing while he tries to stay one step ahead of Monday. At first it isn't obvious that Monday even is a cop, and wonderfully the movie resists any temptation to make him just part of some hideous conspiracy of crooked cops; Monday's just a lone clod who's got in over his head. As Einstein said, everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. 

I can even forgive the film a tricksy time scheme which keeps jumping into flashback, because, for the most part, the plot's so simple that the best way to keep it usefully murky is to keep jumping back to other bits rather than tell everything in the order it happened. And the computer graphic gimmicks of working out routes and the safest way through traffic snarls is done just enough to be cool, but not so much that it wears out its welcome. In fact, it's used cleverly enough that the last time it comes up, it actually manages to deliver a clever little shock to something which - thanks to the fact that the move actually begins with it - we knew was coming. 

Above all and everything else, it's just a nice little movie which picks one thing to do and then does it very well. I could do with a lot more of that kind of thinking.

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