I don’t think it’s helpful to call a work of art “pretentious,” but I do think it’s meaningful to call one “unpretentious.” Rather than open up an unnecessarily Bourdieuvian riff, let me put it this way: I dig a good B-movie. One of my favorites of the last decade was Cellular, a nimble kidnap thriller in which Kim Basinger is uniquely suited to slay one of her captors because she’s a seventh-grade biology teacher who knows her axillary arteries. Life-and-death stakes, a little broad comedy, car chases, never boring and never in bad faith.
Stephanie Zacharek’s compare-and-contrast of Premium Rush to The Master gave me the idea that the former might be in my zone, and that as to the latter, I may prefer the Anderson she describes as a “kid turning out messy, fascinating, and often deeply moving experiments.” (Magnolia: the movie so nice they ran it twice. There Will Be Blood: all I really remember is the milkshake coda, which I defend, along with having your own bowling alley.) I’ll still see it — hopefully with Joaquin Phoenix’s half-apologetic journey into madness I’m Still Here — but last night I wanted my popcorn to pop.
I happily report that Premium Rush delivers the goods. Directed by David Koepp (who gave Indiana Jones shelter from the storm in a jet age Frigidaire) from a script he wrote with John Kamp, the movie follows Wilee, a fixie-riding Manhattan bike messenger played my secret boyfriend Joseph Gordon-Levitt, through an unusually death-defying day trying to deliver a package that someone else is willing to kill for. The plot, a simple matter of a Maguffin in motion, is strong and lean enough to support any number of cinematic pleasures.
There’s a secondary set of romantic conflicts. There’s a goodly number of hot-topic references that add emotional weight (Chinese immigration and “snakeheads”!) and flair (“I need a flash mob!”). There’s a smart visual motif–when busy intersections require Wilee to make snap decisions, we see him visualize them sequentially until he finds one that doesn’t intersect his cranium with a yellow cab. The use of mobile phones is notably unclunky — the signal never disappears in a plot contrivance (to be fair, that’s most of Cellular.) And if my memory is correct, there is exactly one gunshot in the entire film.
As the heavy, Michael Shannon (whom we meet as the “head of campus security” at the Columbia University pickup point, but turns out to be scarier and more powerful than that) is a little on the goofy side of menacing, as if his Boardwalk Empire character were transported to modern-day New York without updating his argot. But he’s a particularly good villain — his motivations are believable, he reasonably believes he can achieve his objectives, and it’s fun to watch him grow ever more frustrated and poisonous as the simple task of taking a package from a skinny kid on a bike eludes him by leaps.
B-movies are often appealingly human-scaled. They’re not quite believable, but they are imaginable. Another favorite of mine is Red Eye, in which Cillian Murphy and Rachel MacAdams have one overnight flight in which to try and kill each other. They have no secret caches of guns & ammo, just their wits and the ordinary features of their environments. These are movies that don’t need to depend on constant explosions to make their money back. They’re cheap, they’re smart, and they’re not boring.
What did you see? Bet it wasn’t as good as Premium Rush.