Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in "Premium Rush." (Sarah Shatz / Columbia TriStar )
Like many people, filmmaker David Koepp believes most movies are too long. "Premium Rush," a 91-minute look at New York City bicycle messengers, is Koepp's answer to the problem.
"I wanted to do something contained, like 'Panic Room,'" said Koepp, who wrote that 2002 Jodie Foster thriller along with the Tobey Maguire "Spider-Man" and "Jurassic Park." "And I am obsessed with maps, so I wanted to do a movie where a guy has to get from point A to point B in a limited period of time."
In "Premium Rush," opening Friday, that guy is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The actor plays Wilee, a bicycle messenger whose beat-up fixed-gear bike, or fixie, has neither gears nor brakes. Wilee dodges Manhattan traffic like a World War II dogfight pilot, nearly every turn bringing him close to a catastrophic crash. If you're a cyclist of any stripe, the movie is bound to make you want to get out and ride — with full body armor.
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In Koepp and co-writer John Kamps' story, Wilee is in possession of an envelope that a compulsive gambler cop named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) wants to intercept and use its contents to pay off loan sharks. Wilee simultaneously has to fend off another police officer who wants to cite him for countless moving violations. Meanwhile, he also must race a fellow messenger (Wolé Parks) who has a top-end road bike and designs on Wilee's former girlfriend (Dania Ramirez).
The $35-million production seems to have a lock on the bike messenger audience, but it may face a bumpier ride with general moviegoers. Pre-release tracking surveys show that "Premium Rush" could enjoy the best opening of the three new films in wide release this weekend, which includes the comedy "Hit & Run" and the horror film "The Apparition."
The movie could be seen as box-office referendum on the appeal of Gordon-Levitt, who is graduating from critically praised supporting roles in movies such as "The Dark Knight Rises" and lead parts in independent films like last year's "50-50."
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But the PG-13-rated "Premium Rush" may struggle to gross more than $10 million in its first three days, the audience surveys show. The most likely winner of the weekend will be "The Expendables 2," which premiered to less-than-spectacular returns of $28.6 million last weekend, well below some projections of as much as $40 million. The weeks leading into Labor Day are never among the most popular of the year, as many people return to school and their post-vacation jobs.
"It's a challenging market," said Gavin Polone, the film's producer, who noted that overall movie attendance has been down following the July cinema shootings in Aurora, Colo.
Polone and Koepp believe "Premium Rush" gives audiences something they should be craving at this point in the summer — a relatively straightforward action film whose visual effects take a back seat to actual stunts.
Though the filmmakers limited dangerous riding by Gordon-Levitt and other cast members (if you stay for the film's end credits, there's a video of Gordon-Levitt's bleeding wounds after he flew through a taxicab's rear window), much of the film's full-tilt cycling was done by actors and stuntmen along Manhattan streets.
"The appeal of the movie to me was riding the bike, doing the scenes on the bike," said Gordon-Levitt, who trained for months on a fixie so he could master not only top-speed riding but skid stops, in which a rider slides his rear wheel sideways to slow down. "Scenes that would be traditionally two people sitting around talking are now happening where we're on a bike [and] talking on a phone. It brings a physicality to it that was really fun and challenging."
Koepp hired trick cyclists Danny MacAskill and Tom La Marche, stuntman Victor Paguia and a real bike messenger named Austin Horse to perform some of Gordon-Levitt's most complicated feats. "They were really fearless and there was nothing they didn't want to do. It was critical that it was a stunt movie, not an effects movie."
All the same, there are some computer-generated tricks sprinkled through the film, including scenes in which Wilee visualizes how to avoid (and, in one case, be forced to have) an accident, and when bicyclists ride into oncoming traffic. "From halfway through writing the first draft, my greatest fear was that I would get someone killed," Koepp said.
Polone had the same concerns. "I was freaking out," the producer said after several accidents in the initial days of filming. "I didn't want to be John Landis on the stand," he said of the director accused of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment in the 1982 death of Vic Morrow and two child extras during the filming of "Twilight Zone," when a helicopter stunt went awry. (He was acquitted.) Polone eventually had to tell Gordon-Levitt, who had two accidents, that there were certain stunts that he no longer would be allowed to film.