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Premium Rush (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Imagine if you removed all the muscle cars and roaring engines from The Fast and the Furious and replaced them with human stamina, sweat, spandex, and tricked out bicycles. Keep the pretty faces and the nonstop chases and you’d have director David Koepp’s Premium Rush, an energetic late summer action flick that is quite the breath of fresh air. Thrusting us into the fast paced world of bike messengers who zigzag through the taxi-clogged streets of New York City, Premium Rush keeps you on the edge of your seat with the idea that these kids, who have nothing protecting them from the pavement but a helmet, could eat concrete at any time if they make one wrong turn. Slightly better than your average late summer throwaway blockbuster, Premium Rush does find itself swerving a bit due to some bland dialogue and a slightly flaccid middle section, but it does keep on its course due to the performances from Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Michael Shannon. It also sneaks by due to the premise, which centers itself on speed demon bike messengers who are addicted to the adrenaline rush they receive from dodging pedestrians and cars. It’s the type of film that I can honestly say that there is nothing else out there like it and truly mean it. Premium Rush is certainly a different approach to the action film. Somebody get these kids a bottle of Gatorade!

Premium Rush introduces us to Wilee (Played by Joseph-Gordon Levitt), an adrenaline junkie bike messenger who zips through the streets of New York City while explaining to us that office work just isn’t for him. This guy prefers Under Armour t-shirts and cargo shorts to a shirt, tie, and briefcase. He also happens to ride a bike with no brakes, which forces him to fully assess a tricky spot when he rides up on it. Wilee pedals along side his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Played by Dania Ramirez), who he is constantly trying to win back from cocky rival Manny (Played by Wolé Parks). Frustrated that Manny keeps jumping onto his routes and stealing his deliveries, Wilee nabs a job delivering for his friend and Vanessa’s roommate Nima (Played by Jamie Chung), who warns Wilee that he has to deliver her package by 7 P.M. What Wilee assumes is just another ordinary delivery turns out to be something much more dangerous than he ever could have imagined. Wilee is soon being hunted down by corrupt NYPD officer Bobby Monday (Played by Michael Shannon), a desperate man who is after the contents of the envelop Nima has given to Wilee. As the chase gets more and more chaotic, Wilee has no other option but to turn to Vanessa to help him stay alive.

The argument can be made that Premium Rush is just one long chase scene that is filled out with a handful of flashbacks. While that is true, the film’s true plot, which won’t be spoiled here, is still good enough to keep us on the hook for the hour and a half it rides across the screen. Still, the middle section does find some of the air leaking out of its tires as things start to get a bit bloated. Luckily, a number of twists and turns keep Premium Rush riding at full speed. The film packs a number of marvelous chase scenes that find us riding right next to the fully exposed bike messengers as they attempt to not get blasted by a speeding New York driver. Wilee and his cohorts ride around a sea of yellow obstacles while cops on beefed up bikes pedal furiously after them. These chase scenes usually pause when Wilee arrives at a tricky obstacle or maneuver that he must pull off perfectly to avoid a couple of broken bones and a night in the emergency room. Director Koepp shows us the outcome of each maneuver and route that Wilee can take and what the damage will be if he chooses the route. I’ll be honest, some of them are pretty violent and brutal. These scenes are effective enough to keep your knuckles white for a good majority of the action.

When the chases aren’t engaging you, the acting of Premium Rush will surely hold your attention. Levitt, who has been everywhere this year and is riding off the success of The Dark Knight Rises, continues to wow us as Wilee, a charismatic and smart-mouthed hero who really gets a charge from putting his life on the line. He has flames in his eyes as he groans over the idea of settling down and getting a real job in a stuffy office. Levitt has really proved himself as an action star and Premium Rush has me ready for what Looper will bring for the infinitely talented young star. When the film moved away from Levitt, I worried that it would take a turn for the worst but luckily, Michael Shannon brings his bat-shit crazy best and really laps up playing the bug-eyed crooked cop Monday. Talking with a spiky New Yawk accent and laughing like a cartoon hyena dreamed up by Looney Tunes, Shannon really knocks the role out of the park. It’s a role that could have slipped into the cliché but Shannon manages to resist the familiar and he single handedly rides off with the entire movie. Everyone else just settles for good as they are completely overshadowed by Levitt and Shannon. Chung does an admiral job as a troubled woman who is nursing heartbreak and Ramirez gets by as the perpetually sweaty ally to Wilee. The only one who is really flat here is Parks as Manny, a smug jerk that comes up short against everyone else. Another stand out in the minor role depart is Christopher Place as an exasperated bike cop who is constantly being outsmarted by Wilee.

There are a few other aspects that hold back Premium Rush from being a really great film. At times, Koepp resorts to iffy computer effects during chase scenes and hypothetical crashes. These scenes are painfully noticeable and they are severely at odds with the scenes where the chase isn’t done on a computer. Furthermore, there are points where the dialogue will have you shaking your head (“This is the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on!”). Still, the actors grit their teeth and deliver it, never letting the characters fall victim to the flawed writing from Koepp and John Kamps. There is plenty to like in Premium Rush and I can honestly say I was never really bored during the film, although my attention slipped a bit during the redundant middle section. I will applaud the film because it works double time to keep things light and keep us entertained, just like a good summer movie should do. Overall, as the last of the summer blockbusters make their way into theaters, Premium Rush offers audiences craving one more adrenaline rush an espresso size shot of action to tide them over until the next wave of blockbusters takes over.

Grade: B

Sucker Punch (2011)

by Steve Habrat

After all the gun smoke had cleared and the credits crawled across the screen, it became crystal clear to me how Christopher Nolan settled on Zack Snyder for the reboot of Superman: Snyder simply showed him Sucker Punch. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Nolan gushed over it either. Sucker Punch is a trippy puzzler that sends you stumbling from the theater to debate what the hell just happened with your friends, which is quite similar to what Nolan did with his towering Inception. But where Inception pulled off it’s elusiveness with refined sophistication, Sucker Punch takes the dirty, dusty road where dragons swoop from above, girls in fishnets wield 50 calibers, WWI zombie German soldiers leap from trenches, and our heroes bop around in a WWII bomber. And that is just naming a few of the oddities that Snyder lobbed into his obvious pet project. I’m sure by this point you’ve seen the other reviews of Sucker Punch and, to use a term from Mr. Obama, the film has taken quite a “shellacking.” Sure it’s big, loud, and completely overblown, but I oddly found myself enjoying the madness. What actually appalls me is that Battle: Los Angeles, a film that makes no attempt to be about anything except blowing everything up, actually received better reviews than this film did! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! Did we see the same movie?

Maybe I was rooting for Snyder to actually pull off the impossible. Everyone under the sun has seen the unruly trailer. Snyder seemed like he wanted to shove every possible genre of film into one film to make one hulking masterpiece. One that encompasses everything from the kung-fu films to epic medieval fantasies. I truly found Sucker Punch to be a noble, and at times, refreshing attempt at it even if it was beginning to show signs of collapsing on itself. The film also has had a slight hypnotic affect over me in the sense that I am confident that there is more to this particular film than first meets the eye. The first time seems to be a shock and awe campaign to pin you to your seat but the more my mind wanders back and evaluates the little touches, the more I’m lured into wanting to uncover more about it.

I won’t dive to deeply into the plot of the film because some of it is up to you to piece together, but the film follows the starry-eyed, pig-tailed Babydoll (played by Emily Browning), who is admitted into a mental institution by her unhinged stepfather after she accidentally shoots her baby sister. It’s here that she falls under the care of the at times menacing and at times motherly but always vampy Dr. Gorski (played by Carla Gugino). Behind the walls of the institition, she embraces her new life in a brothel and learns to dance for the seedy men that come to drool over the young girls. Babydoll soon joins forces with the tough-as-nails leader Sweet Pea (played by Abbie Cornish), Sweet Pea’s gung-ho little sister Rocket (played by Jenna Malone), the uneasy “pilot” Amber (played by Jamie Chung), and the big guns specialist Blondie (played by Vanessa Hudgens). The gang rapidly starts plotting an escape from the institution/brothel and through their wildly untamed imaginations, envision elaborate dream-missions to find the supplies they need to break out of the big house.

While the film marvelously finds a perfect balance between the hectic dream worlds and the rotting walls of the institution, the film tries to cram so much in that points are a little to overpowering. There is an incredibly inspired sequence that takes place on a WWI battle field complete with zombified German soldiers wearing ghastly gasmasks, biplanes falling in flaming ruin from the sky, earth shaking explosions and a lofty android walker with a rabbit face that Amber maneuvers into a outrageously bad ass death machine. It’s a truly breathtaking action sequence that is worth the trip to see the movie alone. Sadly, the film stumbles when it ventures into the realm of medieval fantasy in a war sequence that smashes WWII together with the Lord of the Rings. I give it credit for being atypical but it’s shockingly monotonous and lacking in any sort of looming danger. This leads me to my next compliant, which is the fact that all the girls are magically scrappy superheroes. There is never any concrete justification and we are supposed to just embrace it. One sequence that is especially irritating is when Babydoll confronts three giant samurais. She flips through the air so repeatedly that I almost wanted to shout “ENOUGH ALREADY! WE GET IT!”

Ultimately, Sucker Punch overcomes the obstacles and still manages to be engaging. I still found myself consumed by much of it and the writing, although uneven, is never less than interesting. The dialogue is good but not great and the premise alone never lost me. The performances’ by the young actresses are finely tuned and convincing. I was extremely worried that they would be wooden. The standout is without question the wounded Rocket. She kicks ass while nursing the burden of a broken heart. I actually breathed a huge sigh of relief that the film never descended into a perverse fantasy for Snyder. While the girls are adorned in fishnets and lingerie, the film is surprisingly tame. We never get a glimpse of the burlesque dance sequences and instead are substituted with the dream world. An even bigger relief is that the film counters Snyder’s fixation with masculine heroes. I enjoyed the girl power feel that he explores this time around. It’s more substantial than his homoerotic bloodbath 300. It still comes in third to his colorful Dawn of the Dead remake and spacey adaptation of graphic novel juggernaut Watchmen. On top of it, Snyder further refines his coarse camerawork and his fluid montages of slow motion into real time. It all flows so gorgeously and it’s impossible not to eat it all up.

The aspect that truly wounds Sucker Punch is the ending where, like Watchmen, it crams all of it’s “profound” ideas in a brushed over climax that feels curiously unsatisfying. This is where the film truly flat lines. It piles on nonsensically cryptic monologues on top of some obvious visual symbolism. The film is convinced that it is a fine wine that will be savored as the taste sticks in your mouth. Unfortunately, it’s just a high-end, calorie-loaded beer that is surprisingly tasty in the beginning. A taste that you and your buddies exclaim about for the first few sips but when you reach the bottom of the bottle, you just gulp down the last drops to finish it. It wasn’t as refreshing as the first few half but it wasn’t impossible to polish off. You’ll oddly find yourself wanting to experience it all again to peel back some more layers and it will make for some good conversation in the long run.

Grade: B-

Sucker Punch is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.