Premium Rush (2012)
Perhaps it’s a sign of my advancing age, but I find myself increasingly depressed by the desire of writers (both book and screen) to take a simple story and make it complicated by changing from a conventional linear structure to a sequence of scenes nested in time. While I can still follow the plot, it seems to me an unnecessary investment of my intellectual energy when all I want to do is enjoy the excitement of the chase. There’s nothing wrong with starting at the beginning and having separate point-of-view arcs that slowly converge until we get everyone together for the big climax. That way we watch time pass and the tension increase as time starts to run out. Once you elevate the plot out of a linear time sequence, you lose the effectiveness of time as the dynamic to drive the narrative forward. It becomes a mere plot device.
Premium Rush (2012) has a good story based on the traditional hawala system for transferring cash outside the usual banking system. In this case, Nima (Jamie Chung), a Chinese citizen, wants to send cash instantaneously to China. She goes to her hawala agent, deposits her cash and gets a receipt. This receipt must be delivered to the other party’s hawala agent on the other side of town. Enter our hero — a bicycle courier who’s paid a premium rate for a rush delivery. All he has to do is make the delivery no later than 1900. OK so this is silly. There’s no particular reason why this transaction has to be done at the last minute. Nima has been saving up the cash for months and could easily have made the transfer with plenty of time to spare. But, for the artificial purpose of making up the plot, everything has to be done against the clock. Indeed, everything about this film depends on terrible coincidences. Nima shares a room with Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). Needless to say, she’s a messenger and she’s always saying how reliable her boyfriend is. Meet Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and he picks up the receipt.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a corrupt cop, is losing a relatively large sum of money to a Chinese gambling syndicate. As if by telepathy, this syndicate knows the hawala teams will be exchanging a big chunk of change this particular afternoon and they give Monday an ultimatum. Get the receipt or say goodbye to life — as effective a motivation as you could hope to find. Frankly, if the hawala system was leaking information indicating who was making the transfer and at what time, the agents would not stay in business very long, but we’re supposed to suspend disbelief to get ourselves through to the end of the film. Ah, wait. I have a theory. Suppose in this fictional version of the hawala system the receipt is like a bearer bond, i.e. whoever holds the receipt can collect the cash from whoever issued the receipt (no questions asked). Now the intended payees in China could be looking to get paid twice. They tell their US agents to intercept the receipt and collect the cash. Nima will work to earn more money and send the due amount again.
Anyway, no matter how or why all this is happening, we have our crooked cop in a car pursuing our hero on a bike. In due course, Vanessa gets actively involved and, because he’s a jealous asshole, Manny (Wolé Parks) gets caught up in things and just won’t be told when to get out of the way — he’s not a unsympathetic character but his pigheadedness is slightly less than credible when he also refuses to listen to Vanessa.
None of this means Premium Rush is anything less than enjoyable. Yes, it breaks the KISS rule and is seriously unbelievable, but it’s also knowingly having fun with stereotypes. Bobby Monday is hilariously stupid as the gambling-addicted cop, but absolutely determined. This makes him dangerous because he feels he has nothing to lose. Michael Shannon chews the furniture rather well as he trades on his badge to chase down the receipt. The only strange acting decision was not to fall down dead when he was shot in the head. The on-off love between Wilee and Vanessa feels right and I can understand the frustrations of Manny who believes fervently he should have the inside track. But the real highlight is the quite surprisingly exciting stunt riding, often with a considerable sense of humour. There’s also an interesting slow-mo device as Wilee plots his way through the different road and off-road hazards, hopefully picking the route giving him the best chance of emerging without anything broken. In the end, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does just enough to make the hero believable as the bright postgraduate who would rather maintain his reputation as the best courier in New York instead of qualifying for the bar and sitting behind a desk. This almost exactly mirrors Paris Express or Coursier (2010) in which another professional delivery rider refuses to be beaten on an express delivery. Put all this together and Premium Rush is a good value-for-money film in the adventure or thriller mode.