19 September 2012

PREMIUM RUSH (Dir. David Koepp, 2012, US) - From A to Z [spoilers ahead!]

Rising star: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Premium Rush is a fast paced action thriller that takes place on the summer streets of new York city. Film critic and academic David Bordwell has praised the film as one of the best mainstream narrative films of the year since it succeeds in achieving its cinematic goals in just eighty minutes of screen time. The film is set in the hyperkinetic world of bike couriers who dash around the city while incurring the wrath of most New Yorkers. The central character of Wilee (JGL) lives on his bike, defining his daily existence in the anonymous mass of New York. Bordwell does have a point - this is a film that doesn't waste any shots (offering an object lesson in narrative economy) yet still functions in a roughly identifiable genre(s). The plot involves the delivery of a package by Wilee into the hands of the Chinese mob but of course the relative straightforwardness of such a task is complicated by the obstacle in the form of a corrupt police detective who we gradually discover is not only a gambling addict but somewhat psychotic. The backstory involving a young Chinese student working three jobs so she can pay the Chinese mob to allow her son to immigrate to New York seemed a little heavy handed but director David Koepp never lets the plot supersede the devilishly clever narrative structure, fragmentation of time and visceral camerawork. Given the very nature of bike couriers in a city this was probably a logistically tricky film to shoot but I suspect much of it involves visual effects that are seamlessly integrated to sustain the conceit. The corrupt cop who doesn't seem to get a break invokes the fatalist psychology of noir films and such a genre element inevitably creeps into the film's construction. 

However, it is neither noir or the thriller elements that define this film. Rather it is more primitive narrative concepts. This is a film that returns to the earliest narrative form in American cinema, the chase film. It's easy to underrate the simplicity and leanness of the chase narrative since it has been integrated into the action genre as just another face of high concept filmmaking. By having the narrative events unfold in real time not only sustains dramatic tension but helps to continually foreground the chase through the streets of New York as the primary focal point for the spectator. Had this film been made in the studio era then surely the bikes and the city streets would have been horses and the wild west. Interestingly the western was one of the first film genres to integrate the chase narrative into their repertoire of elements so in many ways although the western remains dormant, many of its traditions particularly it's storytelling methods have been re-appropriated into popular Hollywood genres. In terms of narrative structure, the film jumps back and forth through a timeline that demands we adjust and re-adjust our perceptions of traditional narrative cinema such as a linear time frame with clearly signposted narrative markers related to a film's story and plot. Although the film does have its flaws in terms of poor characterisation, uneven dialogue and somewhat hackneyed ethnic representations, filmmaker David Koepp doesn't seem particularly interested in the wider ideological implications and chooses to maintain a sharper eye on narrative possibilities. What this means is that any traditional narrative interruptions are minimal thus producing a film that never stops breathing. 

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