Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Premium Rush (2012) - Let Go Of The Damn Brakes!

In David Koepp's Premium Rush (written by him and John Kamps), the protagonist, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bicycle courier whose bike has no gears and no brakes - as, he tells us and his ex-girlfriend, brakes are dangerous.

It's bizarre, then, that the screenplay continually slows down when it should be speeding up. And not once, but several times.

Things begin pretty well, as we open with JGL flying through the air after a crash, and landing hard on the Manhattan concrete. And then the movie rewinds to an hour and a half earlier - and the audience is primed for a real-time story frame.

At first, it adheres fairly well to this premise: Wilee finishes one job, gets another, picks up an envelope from his  ex-girlfriend's ex-roommate, and is accosted by a weird man who wants the envelope back. He refuses, cycles away at great speed, but is chased through heavy traffic by his antagonist (and a bicycle cop also joins in the fun). Storytelling is zippy, there are lots of fun little flourishes, some great practical stuntwork and effective POV 'you-are-there' shots which transport the audience onto the bicycle seat.
Finally, Wilee escapes his assailant and does what any normal person would do - he goes to the cops to report the assault. And to his horror, he discovers that the mystery man is a cop himself.

So, great setup, original action sequences low on pyrotechnics but high on impressive stunt work, a special milieu (the fraternity of authority-baiting, tattoo-sporting, speed-loving bicycle couriers - who knew?) - all the elements for a fun, fairly original adrenaline rushing action movie are in place.

And then we get a flashback.

Technically, of course, we're already in a flashback, but that one 'didn't count'. The forward impetus of the storytelling was strong and clear. The first flashback - a fairly lengthy one - tells us who our villain (Michael Shannon) is, what predicament he is in and why he has to get his hands on the envelope Wilee is carrying.

So when the flashback ends, we expect things to take off again (we're in the second half of the second act by now). And they do, for a while. And then we get another flashback. About the young woman who gave Wilee the envelope. And then we get another.

And all the while, the chase motif is almost completely forgotten because the villain sets a trap which means he's waiting at the end of the ride.

Okay - the protagonist and the antagonist cannot meet up again until  5:00 P.M. (the time at which the film started before it flashed back). So how do you keep a chase going when one of the participants in the chase is just laying in ambush at the finish line?

Well, luckily Wilee has a rival in the courier business who has gotten his hands on the envelope and is unwittingly racing to deliver it to the bad guy. And Wilee has to stop him. So a big, long bicycle chase follows, going through Central Park, but although it has some cool moments and fun obstacles, the stakes are relatively low - and certainly not life-or-death.

Then we come to the moment which opened the film, and to our surprise, the story doesn't end there. It was actually the end of act two. Act three gives us some more bike stunts (though not much chasing), suddenly cuts to China for a few scenes, and then resolves everything neatly. (the China cut is jarring because we expect it to be a flashback but it is actually happening 'right now', concurrently with the action at that point in the narrative). And we are left fairly unsatisfied.

Premium Rush is a perfect example of flashbacks being used in a way to halt the forward momentum of the story. In this film, they bring the story almost to a halt (especially the scenes with Jamie Chung). Just when you want the story to accelerate and you are expecting even more harrowing and spectacular chases, the pace slows down, the stakes and backstory are explained, and frankly, the movie becomes fairly sedate. And it never picks up enough steam again to match the energy and drive of its first half.

Part of the reason is that the way the story is told, defeats the expectations of the viewer. At first, you expect a 90 minute thrill ride, a fairly non-stop cavalcade of chase sequences which become ever more exciting and spectacular. And you don't get that - in fact, you get the opposite.

Even when the story goes on beyond the apparently natural cut-off point is disorienting. You've mentally created a framework within which the story is expected to be contained - but then that framework is shattered, and you need to re-align your expectations with the actual way the story is being told.

Premium Rush would have worked far better if it had been a far simpler story, and stuck to its guns (a chase like you've never seen before. These are the players, this is what's at stake: BOOM! We're off. And we're not stopping - not really - until we get to the finish line).

So, the lessons to be learned here are:

- do not go counter to audience expectations which you have set up, unless the surprise is so exciting and satisfying that the audience is delighted rather than disappointed.

- do not use flashbacks which explain backstory and character motivations at a time when you need to ramp up the narrative, increase the stakes and maximize the excitement.

- if you're selling your story as an adrenaline rush, make sure that's what you are delivering.

Finally, it's also interesting to notice that Wilee doesn't have a character arc at all - except in voice-over. He's a law school graduate who abhors the idea of working in an office and wearing a suit, preferring the continual (immature) rush of physical excitement. It's why his more serious girlfriend broke up with him (she has brakes on her bike). And at the very end, we hear him declare in voice-over that 'some day he may put on a suit'. Well, maybe - but there's nothing in the story which explains his change of heart. In fact, the only character arcing is his (ex)-girlfriend who learns to take off her brakes and see life Wilee's way.

That's progress, I suppose. If only the script had followed her lead...