For about two decades, David Koepp has been a screenwriter sought after for his apparent ability to polish blockbuster material into workable shape, a reputation that probably began in earnest after he assisted mightily in the process of adapting Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park for the screen. Since then he’s contribution the roiling franchise stews of Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, Davinci Code discoverer Robert Langdon, and he deserves at least part of the blame for the ill-advised revival of Indiana Jones that set him out in search of a crystal skull. Even now, his laptop-for-hire was drafted to help bring back Jack Ryan and, briefly anyway, help find the pathway to a Snow White and the Huntsman sequel. With no lack of work, and just enough clout as a go-to scribe, it’s fascinating to see which projects he grabs into a little tighter, which ones he decides that he’s the right guy to sit in the director’s chair. That’s in large part because it makes for a pretty idiosyncratic lot.
After starting with the somber, odd Twilight Zone-reminiscent The Trigger Effect in 1996, he made the odd horror movie Stir of Echoes in 1999. Since then, there were two other big-screen credits with a lot of years between them: the 2004 Stephen King adaptation Secret Window and the bizarre, cutesy supernatural comedy Ghost Town, which starred Ricky Gervais as a dentist who saw dead people, leading to hijinks galore. None of those films was especially successful at the box office, and the trend continues with Premium Rush, which opened extremely poorly at the box office, because there’s apparently not much instant excitement in the marketplace for an action movie about New York City bike messengers. Increasingly, it seems that Koepp decides to make the movies that he’s written that he’s pretty sure he’s never going to convince anyone else they’re a goods idea to devote to film.
The thing is, though, even if Premium Rush isn’t a great idea on paper, in execution, it’s not all that bad of one, either. That’s largely because, whatever shortcomings are built right into the project (and there are plenty), the film is also loopy, spirited fun. Koepp had no pretenses towards high art here. He knows he’s making something that will be at best a happily distracting entertainment, so he signals that through endless playfulness, beginning with giving the main character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt Wilee, and having other characters refer to him as “coyote” just to make sure that everyone gets the reference. He stages one chase scene under train trestles in a clear homage to The French Connection and has another character regularly use the pseudonym Forrest J Ackerman, a moniker lifted from the famed, late movie memorabilia collector who published the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. In general, Koepp finds every which way he can to convince the audience to lean back, shut off their brains and enjoy the ride. If he could have leaned out of the screen with a tray of Mai Tais to further take the edge off, he surely would have.
While Koepp frames most of the action effectively and brings some creative elements to the fringes of the film, most notably amusingly grotesque visualizations of Wilee’s ability to instantaneously assess the potential dangers in front of his on the roadway, the greatest pleasures in the film are provided by Michael Shannon as the film’s antagonist, a desperate police detective named Bobby Monday. At one point Shannon’s Monday snarls about a psychological assessment that diagnosed him with impulse control problems, a three-word phrase that probably appears on the resume stapled to the actor’s head shot, in the section labeled “Special Skills.” It’s a pure delight to watch Shannon take the troubled darkness that’s typified his onscreen persona and spin it around into a crackling portrait of cartoon villainy. Premium Rush glides along well enough in many respects, but Shannon’s acting is the assemblage of playing cards shoved into the spokes in just the right way to add a mighty roar.