In honor of the recently completed Olympics, the Smack has expanded its competition facilities. That’s because today’s contest is better suited to the track than the ring; the two opposing films feature professional bicycle riders as lead characters.
In Lane 1 we have Premium Rush, an action/thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an intense bike messenger racing through Manhattan to thwart the machinations of a corrupt cop. In Lane 2 is Quicksilver, starring Kevin Bacon as an intense bike messenger racing through San Francisco in a drama that sees him get mixed up with a troubled young female colleague, a fellow messenger with financial problems, and a homicidal customer.
Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) loves his work as a New York City bike messenger, which is good because it’s rather dangerous and barely pays a subsistence wage. Considerably ramping up the fear factor is his latest assignment, which brings him to Columbia University to transport a small envelope to Chinatown. Wilee knows the customer, it turns out – she’s pretty young immigrant, Nima (Jamie Chung), the roommate of his messenger colleague and ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez).
Also acquainted with the customer and her package, for all the wrong reasons, is corrupt police detective and degenerate gambler Bobby Monday (the intimidating Michael Shannon). Monday knows that the envelope contains a ticket serving as a receipt for a high-cost bribe that will bring Nima’s infant son from China to America. Monday’s in desperate need of cash since his out-of-control wagering has brought the heat from both Chinese gangsters and Caucasian loan sharks. He can exchange the ticket for the money he needs to cool things down.
The detective has a badge, a gun and a car; Wilee’s armed only with his wits, an intimate knowledge of Manhattan’s streets and alleys, and of course his trusty bike. Monday uses everything at his disposal to interrupt Wilee’s delivery and grab that valuable ticket. Wilee, with Vanessa and other fellow messengers, has to outsmart him and make that delivery, ensuring the happy reunion of Nima and her offspring.
Jack Casey (Bacon) is a former stock market whiz kid fallen on hard times. A foolish gamble he’s made on an investment has resulted in the loss of his and his family’s nest egg. He drifts aimlessly through life for a little while, then discovers a new passion – riding a bike for a messenger service.
He’s at home on the bike and enjoys the company of his co-workers. He particularly likes that his new occupation is low-hassle and nearly stress-free, in contrast to his former profession. But trouble comes in the form of a dubious customer named Gypsy (Rudy Ramos), who insists on using attractive young courier Terri (Jami Gertz) as a mule to transport contraband around the city for him. Meanwhile, another messenger named Hector (Paul Rodriguez) solicits Jack’s financial expertise to help him secure a loan for a hot dog stand he’s aching to buy – hot dog slinging, apparently, is considered a big step up from bike messengering in this world.
Jack was happy to ditch responsibility when leaving his old job, but it comes creeping back to find him in his new work. He becomes involved in Hector’s money travails, and takes it upon himself to save Terri from an increasingly hostile and aggressive Gypsy.
Bike messenger cinema is an extremely limited genre. In fact, these two movies are (to our knowledge) pretty much the only big-budget ones Hollywood’s ever produced. They share numerous similarities besides the jobs of its top-billed cast: Both lead characters are smart loners who’ve chosen their new lives after stepping off the office workaday treadmill; the two ultimately find the value of working in league with their colleagues; both lurch their way toward romantic entanglements. And, oh yeah – the chases.
Any movie prominently featuring a mode of conveyance tacitly promises to show a lot of its chosen vehicle, and in expensive feature films that means long, fast chases. Quicksilver ends with a bruising car vs. bike confrontation, while Premium Rush goes that a few better by doing several of the above, plus bike vs. bike, and lastly, bike vs. cops on foot.
Our challenger is clearly the tighter and more focused of the two movies. It’s essentially an action film, a lean 90 minutes of pursuit laced with expositional flashbacks to unspool the mystery and build the plot. Quicksilver, meanwhile, feels like a few movies cobbled haphazardly together. Is it a drama about a successful young man coping with a fall from grace? A youth-targeted effort, featuring people doing cool bike tricks? A suspense thriller with Gypsy as the lead bad guy? It seems like a project that started out as a script focusing on one of the above, then spread out in a clumsy try at hitting every other type of story and demographic. This ultra-hybrid doesn’t work – you can be a mountain bike, a city bike, an electric bike, or a recumbent. It’s almost impossible to be all of these at once.
Premium Rush is also the better made of the two movies, being written and helmed by star screenwriter David Koepp. One filmmaker with a story is usually better than many, and Quicksilver feels like it was made by a platoon. The new film’s performances are not all that memorable (Gordon-Levitt has been better in supporting roles), but at least they’re solid and believable. The same can’t be said of Quicksilver. Although Bacon turns in his usual proper and diligent work, few of the actors playing the blue-collar messengers ring true in their acting, particularly Gertz with her phony street accent.
Both films are products of their respective times, but Quicksilver – all fluffy hair, fuzzy neon cinematography and synthesizer-cluttered soundtrack – will date especially badly. Premium Rush will also feel dated at some point (oh, those ever-funky graphics and cutaways to smartphone maps!), but since it’s got the more compelling and focused story, it’ll probably enjoy a longer shelf life.
Premium Rush is by far the more enjoyable of our contestants, a breezy hour and a half that combines a light mystery and a lot of cat-and-mouse in an appealing blend. It isn’t very deep and there are a few logical holes here and there, but so what? You don’t use your full brain power for a flick like this; sit down and enjoy the ride. Quicksilver can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be, which considerably leeches interest, and it’s badly dated with weaker acting. Plus that awful music really grates. This race isn’t a close one at all; coming in many laps ahead is our medal winner, Premium Rush.