Monday, September 10, 2012

Bike trip to see a bike movie

Does anybody else find it weird that there's a general lack of cycling movies in our culture?

It doesn't really make sense. Cycling -- whether it be road bikes, mountain bikes or BMX racing -- is one of the most popular activities in the world and a hobby that's relatively easy for just about anyone to pick up. It doesn't require an insane amount of physical ability, nor does it require a lot of money to get started. Bike shops -- even the small-town ones -- are kept busy year-round and I'm sure motorists can attest to the regular sighting of cyclists on back country roads and city streets alike.

Yet despite all that, biking has flown relatively under the radar in cinematic culture. Runners have "Chariots of Fire" and TWO Steve Prefontaine biopics to enjoy. Swimmers have Rodney Dangerfield pulling off the Triple Lindy dive in "Back to School." Heck, dodgeball even has its own movie.

What do cyclists have? We have a small library worth of Lance Armstrong documentaries (wouldn't his story make an excellent biopic?), a Kevin Bacon movie from the 80's (side note: I didn't know about this movie until a friend of mine mentioned it, might have to track it down on Netflix now), and according to this list on, we have "Pee Wee's Big Adventure."

Given this general lack of cycling cinema, when I first heard about "Premium Rush" coming to theaters, I was naturally intrigued. A movie centered around the fast-paced, borderline reckless lifestyle of New York City bike messengers? Could that work? Would they be able to make it realistic without putting the actors in danger? I had to see for myself.

So with a day off last week, I hopped on my bike and headed down to Owatonna to catch the matinee showing. The back-country pedal might not be as action-packed as traversing the busy streets of New York, but I figured it was the best way to get in the mood to see a film about cycling. Plus I really just wanted to get a good ride in.

My expectations for the movie were relatively modest. I figured the plot line would likely be cheesy -- as it often is in action movies -- and that the characters would probably be a little over-the-top. However, I was optimistic that the biking sequences would be well done and that Joseph Gordon-Levitt would give a quality performance as the lead.

Gordon-Levitt has quickly become one of my favorite actors to watch because of his versatility -- in this year alone, he will have portrayed a hero-worshiping cop, a bike messenger, a futuristic assassin and the son of Abraham Lincoln --  and general willingness to take on challenging roles. He's not in the same class as Daniel Day-Lewis or Philip Seymour Hoffman for being a chameleon in roles, but he's certainly established himself as something more than the little alien kid from "3rd Rock from the Sun" (one of my favorite shows growing up, but that's beside the point).

"Premium Rush" follows a pretty predictable storyline for anybody who saw the trailer ahead of time. In centers around Gordon-Levitt's Wilee, a law school graduate who decided to be a thrill-seeking bike messenger instead of a button-down lawyer after college. Unlike his more cautious bike messaging compatriots, he rides a fixed gear bike -- meaning the pedals are always turning and there's no coasting -- with no breaks. He relies on instinct and split-second reactions to avoid crashes instead of obeying traffic laws and slowing down once in awhile...a notion he seems to fully embrace.

Wilee's character reminds me a lot of Tom Cruise's Maverick from "Top Gun," only with bikes instead of planes. He has the same cockiness and recklessness, plus he has little interest in following the rules and advice of others, including his on-and-off fling and fellow bike messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). Vanessa's character is more grounded in reality and doesn't intend to be a bike messenger for long, but she has slight thirst for danger as well and that wild side is what draws her to Wilee.

Extending the "Top Gun" analogy further, Wilee's rival bike messenger Manny (Wole Parks) would be Rick Rossovich's Slider: Just pure, over-the-top testosterone (though I'm fairly certain Slider never referred to himself in the third person or said anything as remotely weird as "Seriously, have you seen my thighs?").

Despite his recklessness, Wilee is good at what he does, and his talent as a bike messenger is what gets him sucked into the main conflict of the movie. Vanessa's former roommate needs a package delivered to the city's shipping yard by 7 p.m. and because of Wilee's esteemed reputation, he is the one summoned for this task.

The only problem is there's another interested party looking for the package: an in-over-his-head compulsive gambler who happens to be a police detective (played with appropriate sleaziness by Michael Shannon). Detective Monday needs that package to square his debt with the mob and asks Wilee to hand it over. However, because that would be a violation of company policy (package security seems to be the one rule Wilee abides by), he disagrees, calls the cop a mean word and escapes from his grasp. From there, the chase is on.

Director David Koepp attempts to keep the audience engaged by telling the story in non-chronological order. The opening scene of the movie is Wilee crashing his bike into a car, where time is immediately turned back to the point where he his first given the delivery assignment. From there, the film is told  with the occasional flashbacks to help establish the characters (particularly Detective Monday's gambling problems).

Considering the relatively short timeline this movie is operating on, this was definitely a smart move on Koepp's part. Instead of dragging down the early parts of the movie with character development, audiences are thrown right into the action and become immediately interested in what's going on.

Well, at least MOSTLY interested, because the movie is certainly not without it's flaws.

From a realism standpoint, my biggest critique of "Premium Rush" is the leniency audiences have to have to adopt its storyline. We are led to believe that Wilee gets his delivery order, fends off numerous pursuits and confrontations with Detective Monday, Manny and an angry bike cop, gets bandaged up at a hospital, escapes a police impound lot and bikes lord knows how many miles to still make his delivery in less than two hours. I know it's just a movie and I know Hollywood takes liberties with reality all the time, but it would've been nice if the story were at least somewhat believable.

The general lack of character depth also made it tough to become invested with anyone in the movie. We're never really shown why Wilee decided to not pursue a real career after law school (side note: Wouldn't his parents be furious at him for wasting his degree?), nor do we ever get to see much of the dynamic of his relationship with Vanessa.

I also have a hard time believing characters like Detective Monday and Manny could exist in real life. Wouldn't Detective Monday's gambling habits and generally bumbling nature prevent him from ever making the police force? And wouldn't Manny's overwhelming machismo get him beat up at some point? Also, what self-respecting woman -- Vanessa included -- would ever find that attractive?

I could dwell on these points further, but I knew going in that this movie wasn't going to be Shakespeare in the park or even "50/50" -- another Gordon-Levitt movie -- for that matter. It's an action movie, and you don't watch action movies because of the believable plot line or emotionally-deep characters. You watch them for the action, and "Premium Rush" delivers (no pun intended) in this respect.

The bike sequences are extremely well shot, filmed at angles and perspectives that make the audience feel like they're right on top of the action and choreographed with impeccably-chosen music. The impound lot scene is probably the best example of this, as it features a variety of near-impossible BMX tricks to the thrashing tune of "Salute Your Solution" by the Raconteurs. Two other features also made the biking sequences stand out: the GPS mapping of the routes and how Koepp will occasionally freeze time at intersections so Gordon-Levitt can scan all available options to avoid accidents. Both are elements other cyclists can relate to, though most don't do it at the same break-neck speed -- or in as heavy of traffic -- as Wilee's character.

Moreover, I thought the movie did a great job capturing the subculture and communal aspects of biking. The majority of cyclists -- myself included -- aren't bike messengers, but we all relate to each other in some way and *most* of us have a mutual respect for one another while we're on the road. It's that bond of a similar interest and lifestyle that brings so many people together for events like RAGBRAI every year, and it's also what plays a key role in the movie's climax. As Gordon-Levitt's character puts it: "We stick together."

As far as performances go, the most impressive aspect of "Premium Rush" is the believability of the actors as bike messengers. Gordon-Levitt, Ramirez and Parks look completely legitimate as cyclists and all three underwent several weeks of rigorous training to prepare for their roles. Apparently, they did a lot of their own stunts as well, with Gordon-Levitt needing 31 stitches after crashing into a New York City cab while filming.

Aside from that, the acting is about as over-the-top as you'd expect in an action movie. Nobody really stood out as "stealing the show" from Gordon-Levitt and I didn't walk out of the theater thinking he put on an acting clinic of any kind (if you want to see a full display of his ability, go rent "50/50" or "Brick"). The antagonist of the movie was also pretty forgettable, as Michael Shannon's bad guy wasn't charismatic like Hans Gruber in "Die Hard," nor was he entertainingly menacing like Dennis Hopper's bomber in "Speed."

However, despite its shortcomings, "Premium Rush" kept me sufficiently riveted through its brisk running time of 90 minutes. Considering the general lack of bike movies out there, it was also nice to see cycling finally get some love on the big screen.

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