Premium Rush won my heart so thoroughly with its opening monologue alone that it would have taken a galactic screwup for me to be completely put off it. Reviewers have made a lot over one small line in said monologue: “I like to ride. Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.” Its been called smarmy and ridiculous, but I doubt much of the bicycle messenger community shares that opinion. I worked that dangerous and punishing job myself on the Chicago circuit for several years, and in my official capacity as a former messenger (no, we don’t call ourselves couriers), I can honestly say the opening monologue – which actually rambles on for a couple of minutes – wouldn’t be a better summary of a messenger’s job had I written it myself. Yes, it’s a movie, and so writer/director David Koepp is naturally prone to taking some Hollywood license with it. But he also captures enough of what life is really like for this unique breed that I wondered if he had ever made his living as a messenger himself. By my estimation, the accuracy rate of the portrayal of messenger work in Premium Rush stands around 80 percent.
If Koepp didn’t work as a messenger, then it’s eerie that he was able to write it so well. I notice a lot of reviewers tend to look at the script of Premium Rush with an air of disbelief, naturally thinking Koepp was writing in the drama of “messing” as he pleased. Messing, though, is a job in which the real life might be more unbelievable than anything based on it. The main character in Premium Rush, Wilee, rides a fixed gear bicycle. Fixies, as they’re called, are track bicycles made strictly for racing. Fixed gear means the gear is directly attached to the chain, to the bike can only move when you peddle. They’re made with an emphasis on lightness and speed, so most of them don’t have brakes; the ones that do have only one brake. Fixies are possibly the most insanely dangerous bicycles on Earth even if you know what you’re doing, but some messengers really DO use them, although the practice isn’t common. Also, people who have been messengers for any serious length of time do have multiple stories about getting hit by cars, doored, and flipped over their handlebars. There was an early scene in Premium Rush where one messenger makes a phone call from a freight elevator, showing that in many buildings messengers ARE segregated from the business public and made to go through the back. (This isn’t good for the messenger; freight elevators are very slow, and since almost all messengers are contractors, time is money. The messenger union once held a strike outside of one building on LaSalle Street in Chicago because it was easy to spend 20 minutes waiting for the freight. Another building, on Wacker, tried making messengers go through the freight for a few months, but that experiment was quickly axed when the businesses in the place complained that delivery slowed to a crawl.) Messengers frequently eat, drink, and make phone calls on the peddle. Ripping off motorists’ mirrors really is a way messengers frequently attack drivers if they’ve been pushed too far, except in real life we don’t use our locks to do it because they’re bulky and mirrors aren’t the most tightly bolted part of a car. We know there’s no consequence for such a thing, ever, because who besides the driver will care? Yes, it’s possible Koepp might have written everything believing he was just making the movie more exciting, but take it from the pro: THIS STUFF REALLY HAPPENS.
Naturally, I was jacked at the release of Premium Rush, a movie which featured a messenger as the hero! Unfortunately, my euphoria was knocked out a little at the beginning of the movie because of the attitude of the main character, Wilee. Mercenary attitudes are common in messing, but Wilee acts like one of the anti-heroes from 90’s movies. It’s a point against the movie because it makes him unlikable, and shows that the only reason he’s the hero is because Premium Rush needed a hero. So anyway, here’s this perfectly ordinary bicycle messenger named Wilee, who gets sent to a location to pick up an envelope and make what is supposed to be an everyday run. As he heads out, a guy in a fancy suit walks up to him and starts demanding the envelope. See, he REALLY NEEDS it! Wilee, being the honor-bound and noble messenger, of course escaps him and is off to make an average run as part of his $80-a-day job. This scene, by the way, is one that requires suspension of disbelief from messengers. If someone wants a package off a messenger THAT badly, he’s getting it, no questions asked. No matter how committed, all messengers know there’s no such thing as a package worth dying for, and I knew one or two people who had no reservations about outright destroying packages out of frustration themselves, though it was extremely rare.
Anyway, things kick up a notch when Wilee hits the road and douchebag suit is now following him in his car! He just doesn’t give up, even when Wilee jumps into the other lane to ride into traffice coming at him. (This happens in real life.) Koepp makes some astounding chase sequences though the movie, and there are some incredible stunts. The chase sequences make Premium Rush fun, and it occurs to me that, had the chase alone been the whole movie, it would have been a wild ride and ended a lot better. In fact, Premium Rush could have spotlighted a day in the life of a bike messenger, and it would have been very exciting.
That’s ultimately where Premium Rush goes wrong. A lot of reviewers like to point out the whole thing takes place in real time, but it certainly doesn’t feel like real time. Real time is when the entire movie follows one character for the whole 90 to 120 minutes spent watching it. Well, Koepp and his co-writer, John Kamps, get credit for the realisation that, had Premium Rush followed Wilee through this one delivery, it would have been shorter than the average sitcom episode. So how does he get around the problem? By creating arbitrary contrivances, of course! After a few minutes of the first chase, the movie then decides it should probably try to develop the bad guy. Now, the bad guy chasing Wilee, Bobby Monday, is so over-the-top that he would have worked better without a background. But not only does Monday get a background, he gets a backstory which would make us sympathetic to him had he not been so over-the-top. He needs what’s in the envelope to pay off a gambling debt before his loan shark knocks him off.
Oh, yeah, Monday’s a cop. So Wilee can’t just go running to the Police. To the screenwriters’ credit, he thinks of that, but that plan is abruptly axed when Monday shows up at the station Wilee visits to file his complaint. After he escapes the station, the whole movie goes nuts. Wilee has to outrun Monday, a particularly zealous bicycle cop who is also out to get him for, well, I don’t know. (Seriously, the only crime Wilee committed was riding on the sidewalk. As much as pedestrians whined and threatened to call the Police at messengers who got too close, the cops DON’T CARE. Especially not the officers who are also on bicycles. The only time they’ll say anything is if the messenger is dangerously close to running them over, and even then, we’ll get off with nothing but a stern warning.) Wilee also goes to return the package from where he got it because he’s angry. (Would never happen.) Alas, one of his messenger buddies gets it first and now Wilee, guilt-ridden after finding out what the package would mean for the person who originally called for it, has to race his pal to get it back.
Did I just ramble through two paragraphs off my original point? I guess I did. So anyway, plot contrivances are just one of the ways Premium Rush pads its length. The other is flashbacks, which are in there for the sole purpose of telling the story that could easily have been told just as easily chonologically. In doing this, the filmmakers give themselves both a gimmick and a way to get around the inconvenience of having a gimmick. It’s certainly nice to know what the story is, but the way it’s presented destroys the flow of the movie. There’s a chase, then a flashback, chase, flashback, chase, flashback. Virtually every switch of a scene feels disruptive, especially during the action sequences because here you are, just enjoying yourself and tuning out when you suddenly have to turn the switch back on to pay attention again.
Want more contrivance? Wilee is also having girlfriend problems. Apparently his best friend, Manny, is moving in on his girl because the girl (who, by the way, is a messenger) thinks Wilee is out of his freaking mind. Manny is also a messenger. See, the difference is that Manny isn’t out of his freaking mind like Wilee is. We know that because he uses a proper road bicycle with real shifters and brakes! So, through the course of the movie, we see these three knotheads call each other while making their runs almost constantly. (Doesn’t happen, at least not with messengers who use phones provided by their services. Messengers DO makes phone calls on the fly – it’s damn near required to be able to pull that off – but the calls are only with dispatchers.) Does boy get girl back? When has the hero of an action movie ever been left hanging for nookie?
Half of Premium Rush, I was rooting for Monday. That’s how bad this sucker is with its characters. After all, Monday had the mob on his tail and we don’t know what the hell some other person wants with the envelope until later. When Wilee made his inevitable heel-face turn, I wasn’t sure I believed it. Maybe that could be seen as more length-padding desperation – Koepp and Kamps were so stuck that they made the mistake of trying to develop the guy we’re supposed to hate.
Once my messenger years were behind me, I felt a little conflicted about walking away. On the one hand, I’ll never have the kind of personal freedom offered by messing again. On the other, since it’s a poor-paying contract job, I walked away with a mountain of debt in taxes and medical bills, the latter of which I haven’t even started to repay, and was glad I wouldn’t see them rise more. I’m also now afflicted with a series of cumulative old injuries upon which my body – especially my wrist and ankle – will never be the same. Ultimately, I’m glad I’m not a messenger anymore, even if the economy did force me to move back home. Yet, there is an understandable appeal to the lifestyle. That also sums up my feelings about Premium Rush; some truly wonderful points, but the experience just didn’t feel worth it to me.
Be nice to your messengers.