Even though it is now only a decade old, Premium Rush feels like it would never be made today. There’s not anything particularly challenging or subversive about David Koepp’s high concept chase movie, but it represents the exact type of project that is so often denied a theatrical release, and sent directly to streaming. Mid-budget star vehicles with no award season or franchise prospects are almost entirely absent in the modern Hollywood ecosystem.
Premium Rush is a mystery action-thriller set within the intricate world of New York City bike messaging. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, a disillusioned Columbia Law School graduate who ditched the prospects of a legal career for the excitement of delivering messages in the Big Apple. Wilee thinks that he’s not prepared for the responsibility that comes with the law, but the world of crime has a way of finding him. He’s tasked with delivering a message that makes him the target of a corrupt NYPD officer.
Premium Rush is worth celebrating purely for what a novelty it is now, but it deserves a rewatch because of one of its key performances. Michael Shannon’s role as the dirty cop Bobby Monday is one of the most unhinged performances of his career. That’s no small statement. Shannon is the same guy that pried his own teeth out in Bug, masqueraded as Elvis Presley in Elvis & Nixon, screamed about cookies in Knives Out, convinced Jake Gyllenhaal to commit torture in Nocturnal Animals, and delivered the infamous “I will find him!” line in Man of Steel. He’s got a career of wild roles, but Premium Rush is one of his craziest yet.
Monday is a characteristically gruff New York cop who’s seriously addicted to gambling. In order to clear his debts, Monday accepts a job from the loan shark Mr. Lin (Boyce Wong). He’s brought in to intercept a ticket before it’s delivered to Sister Chen (Wai Ching Ho). The ticket will grant passage from the United States to China for the young woman Nima’s (Jamie Chung) family. Wilee works his way into the plot because he’s dating Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), Nima’s roommate.
The smuggling subplot complicates what is a relatively straightforward manhunt movie. Concerned due to the critical contents of the letter, Nima has Wilee dispatch the letter to Sister Chen. Monday observes this happening, and desperately tries to track down Wilee. In one of the more inadvertently hilarious moments in the film, Monday pretends to be the head of campus security in a hasty attempt to convince Wilee to hand over the message. Wilee adheres strictly to the rules and refuses, mostly in an attempt to irritate Monday. Shannon proceeds to dial it up to 11, and threatens Wilee’s entire family if he doesn’t comply.
Shannon’s eccentricity could probably be enjoyed in a YouTube compilation of clips, but his sheer depravity ends up elevating the entire story. Initially, Wilee is a dismissive, slightly dull protagonist; it’s clear that “finding a direction in life” is meant to be his character arc, but he’s so adverse to ambition within the beginning of the film that he’s difficult to relate to. Monday gives him the opportunity to do the right thing. What starts off as Wilee’s effort to annoy a rude passerby ends up giving him responsibility for the future of Nima’s family.
To Wilee, Monday is just one of the many strange characters he’s bound to meet on any given day, but Koepp establishes earlier that he’s much more dangerous than that. Monday turns the tables on a gang of shady debt collectors in one of his best freakout moments; as he’s slamming the collector into a street corner, Monday gives an incoherent speech about the merits of the law. Koepp doesn’t necessarily use this to make a larger point about police corruption, but the terror of being a fugitive sinks in for Wilee. When he tries to report Monday to the police, he’s shocked to learn that he’s a detective. If someone like that is able to hold authority, then Wilee is truly on his own.
Shannon gets to deliver a signature “third act villain speech,” but it actually ends up giving Wilee the motivation that he needs to have his “hero moment.” Monday knows how to torment Wilee, and presses on his ribs to make cycling more challenging for him. Monday asks for one-word answers; he sees the situation as black-and-white. This may have been how Wilee observed his profession before, but he now knows that this situation is more complex than that. If Wilee abandoned his legal pursuits because he couldn’t handle the pressure of authority, then why should that same responsibility be given to someone like Monday?
Doing right by Nima and deceiving a corrupt authority figure is enough to get Wilee to pull a trick. It also allows Koepp to show the merits of the unique subculture of bike messengers that he has been exploring. Wilee’s fellow messengers come into overwhelm Monday, giving him time to deliver the letter. It shows that Wilee has inspired his community to work for the common good, but it also gives Shannon a chance to flail around and act like a maniac.
There are many “bad movies” that are elevated by a ludicrous bad guy, but Shannon’s Premium Rush performance is more than just an over-the-top showcase role. He’s the type of villain who makes the hero more compelling and adds a thematic subtext that the film barely touches on. It’s very specific, but also very weird. Basically, it’s everything that you would expect from the genius of Michael Shannon.