A movie that fulfills its title in every way, Premium Rush is a quickly paced, thrill-a-minute New York trip in which bike messengers frantically evade pedestrians, vehicles, and the occasional cop. The delivery boys and girls and the police are sometimes (not always) just doing their jobs, but both sides’ actions have powerful consequences for themselves and others. Even though this film has some major content issues and too many ends-and-means questions to count, this is a ride well worth seeing to the end.
The movie deftly balances smartness and simplicity.
The story opens with a slow-motion view of a kid being flung into the air from off of his bicycle, thanks to being hit by a cab. This event evidently occurs late in the plot, since the film is then shown rewinding, with flair, to an earlier starting point. This particular kid is a bike-riding delivery boy, a highly skilled one at that, and some very nice first-person scenes make his job look as enticing as it is evidently dangerous. One of well over a thousand such messengers in New York City, this one tends to ride far more recklessly than his peers.
Wilee, whose name and behavior indeed bring to mind the cartoon coyote, is a messenger blessed with incredible reflexes and an ability to make difficult and perilous navigation decisions at a moment’s notice. “This option will lead to me being hit by a car,” the film’s visuals depict in painful emphasis. “This option will lead to me crashing into a mother with her stroller,” another sequence shows. Even as Wilee’s actions generally have consequences ranging from comparatively minor property damage to outright causing accidents, Wilee himself usually escapes in good condition. Thankfully he does wear a helmet, though he and several other characters including some cops could use elbow and knee protection as well (Wilee, especially, deliberately leaves brakes off of his bike).
The (relative) hero’s objective is to deliver a mysterious envelope to an equally mysterious client, and this becomes wrapped up in a detailed but easy-to-follow plot involving a corrupt investigator, behind-closed-doors money transfers, and even human trafficking, the last of which is portrayed in-universe in a positive light due to context. The story in the movie is actually really good, in that Wilee, his friends and rivals, and the previously mentioned investigator all play a role in this interconnected tale. Without wanting to spoil through excessive detail any of these other individuals or their motivations, it’s safe to say that no one thing ever feels irrelevant or pointless from a big-picture point of view.
And it’s also a technical success.
The film’s pacing is well thought out, with one of the story structure’s best decisions being that it isn’t one big chase sequence. Those are consistently interesting when they appear, quite possibly due to the fact that large chunks of the movie are much slower and more willing to take time to make these people interesting and believable. These scenes, which often don’t appear in chronological order, are never excessive or too long-winded, and neither are the “rush” scenes themselves.
The action in this movie is very understated and is better off for it. There are few if any “explosions,” and extreme acts of violence are present but very rare (usually reserved for the story’s most important events), which makes these aspects of the movie feel more ordinary and plausible. Likewise the action, when it does appear, is often varied, with one especially notable scene emphasizing stealth and subtlety.
Being set in New York City, this movie showcases a lot of gorgeous environments but is also supported by its great camera work and by its stylistic choices: among the most interesting of those are the very wide zoom-outs and the superimposed text that make several scenes look like they’re taking place inside of a gigantic GPS device. Unfortunately not all of the style decisions on display are so laudable.
Even if it doesn’t always feel like a PG-13 film.
One of Premium Rush’s biggest problems is its frequent use of profanity. The s-word literally seems constant in some scenes, and there are also many harsh misuses of the Lord’s name, an f-bomb insertion (in a movie oddly without a lot of sexual references), and several other vulgarisms. One truly odd scene near the end of the story gives the impression that the movie is well aware of how crass it is. In its own odd way, though, the movie shines in that one of its biggest problems is otherwise very easy to remove, as its writing is otherwise very interesting.
A somewhat more subtle but still concerning issue is that the film basically glamorizes hedonism and rebellion–the police are rarely portrayed in a positive light or even as positively as running from them is, even if not everyone on the force is necessarily a likable or noble individual. The “heroes'” socially unacceptable and sometimes destructive actions aren’t limited to being ‘just against the bad cops’ (not that this in itself would justify these choices), though thankfully for the rating, they’re not as extreme as the kinds of anti-police violence excused in works such as the admittedly entertaining but more unapologetically adult Crank: High Voltage.
In other areas the movie more or less limits itself to a few lines of innuendo, though some scenes contain heavy drug use, such as smoking; gambling, which is important to the plot, appears but is not necessarily “glamorized” when considering a number of events it indirectly causes; and there are some conspicuous scenes of violence, such as a person losing a tooth and being bloodied in the process, though this level of detail is a rarity in this movie.
Conclusion: Questionable elements don’t drag down this movie’s achievements.
Premium Rush is basically a marvel of filmmaking best watched with a V-chip and a strong moral compass, which is something I never imagined I’d say. The action is exciting without being excessive (if possibly a bit harsh at times for younger viewers, with some scenes being graphic and in no way “stylized”), and the characters and their circumstances and behaviors are consistently interesting. The things these people do will often matter in both the short and long terms, and most of the characters are likable in their own ways, even if this movie seems to heavily imply that good intentions are enough to give a person arbitrary authority to behave as he or she pleases.
For viewers who know better and can deal with this film’s many questionable word choices, Premium Rush, divorced of its context, is an example to its genre and is a thoroughly enjoyable movie that provides an oddly thought-provoking experience without, in my mind, being likely to alienate audience members who are primarily interested in simply having fun. It’s a strong and near-complete recommendation.