The term "B-movie" gets tossed around pejoratively, but here's the honest truth: Good B-movies like Premium Rush may be rarer than any other kind of movie.
Back in the day, B-movies were films made quick and cheap for the back end of double features. In more recent years, "B-movie" has become shorthand for all sorts of genre pictures: low-budget horror, science fiction, suspenseful thrillers, gritty crime dramas. These films are wonderful junk food in a balanced movie diet, but their creators often fail to make the simple elements satisfying. That's why David Koepp is a cinematic treasure. He can turn these elements into something fulfilling as both a writer (Spider-Man, Panic Room) and a writer-director (The Trigger Effect, Stir of Echoes). Premium Rush proves that he's fully digested the B-movie requirements.
- Lean, stripped-down premise. Koepp casts Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, a bike messenger who careens through Manhattan, intent on getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. When a valuable item must be delivered by a deadline, a breakneck chase-race begins - and continues for 80 action-packed minutes. There's also a romance with fellow bike messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), but Wilee seems far more enamored of his need for speed.
- A quality antagonist. Sometimes the B-movie villain is the hero's own psychology; other times it's a flesh-and-blood bad guy. Here it's the latter, in the form of an NYPD detective named Monday (Michael Shannon). This guy has serious gambling debts and not much time to pay off his creditors, hence his eagerness to relieve young Wilee of his special envelope. Shannon has gotten lots of mileage out of simmering menace and whack-a-do craziness, both of which are showcased here. He busts out full-throated cackles of lunacy and more subtle forms of manipulation, all with evident glee.
- Simple but satisfying flourishes. Unlike some writers, Koepp knows how to accentuate his premise with a well-chosen visual style. In Premium Rush, the cameras zip upward for overhead shots of Wilee's planned routes and weave through tight traffic as quickly as his bike. The most effective gimmick is when the audience goes inside Wilee's head to watch him decide which car-dodging method is least likely to result in death.
Koepp stumbles a bit when he backtracks to fill gaps with extra information about the characters: what the mysterious money ticket represents for Vanessa's roommate (Jamie Chung); how Monday got in such big trouble with such rough customers; how Wilee and Vanessa became a couple. These details don't matter. If anything, they're for tricking the audience into thinking this is something besides a B-movie. Luckily, it is a B-movie - and a smart one at that. You keep the Oscar-bait, and I'll keep this film, which leaves me with a gasp and a giddy smile.