David Koepp's PREMIUM RUSH is a compact, furiously-paced action film hellbent on giving audiences the adrenalized sensation of hurtling through the traffic-choked streets of New York City on a bike with no brakes. The plot is simple: a bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) winds up with a envelope containing something of extreme interest to a corrupt cop (Michael Shannon). When the messenger refuses to hand the envelope over, the chase is on and doesn't stop until the closing credits.
Filled with dazzling practical stunt work, PREMIUM RUSH is at its best when conveying the alternating thrill and terror of the messenger profession. And while there were many stunt riders recruited for the production, you always feel like its Gordon-Levitt and co-star Dania Ramirez (who plays his equally fearless girlfriend) on those bikes. And sometimes it was. As has been widely reported, Gordon-Levitt actually injured himself during the shoot when he rammed his bike into the back of a taxi and smashed through the rear window (if you stick through the end credits, you'll get to see the videotaped aftermath of the accident). As you'll read in the below interview, that little crash was something of a wake-up call for the actors.
I only had ten minutes with the pair, so I focused on the physical aspect, which is unquestionably the primary appeal of the film. Bumps, bruises and thirty-one stitches aside, it sounds like both actors had a blast making this movie. You can certainly see it onscreen.
Mr. Beaks: This film is so reliant on practical action. It required both of you to do a fair amount of riding. Was that a draw for you?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I thought it was just a really clever way to design an action movie. It's not about how big can you make it, it's about making it really clever. And I think putting it on bikes...
Dania Ramirez: It's a very innovative way to tell an action story. There's a car chasing a bike, so there's also the danger that something could actually happen. Those are the kinds of movies that have made the most impact in my life. When I watch something and I'm like, "Oh, if I was there, that's the situation I would be in." It feels really authentic.
Gordon-Levitt: I like what you said about practical action. That's what this movie is all about. There's really very little special effects in this movie. You're just watching performers doing crazy things. There's five of us who play this character: me and four stunt doubles. I've never had that many stunt doubles at all. (Laughs) All four of those guys have their specialities and their particular skills that they do on a bike. That's what you're watching; you're watching these guys endangering themselves, but with a skill level that makes it a reasonable thing for them to try.
Ramirez: I think it allows you to act more, which as an actor you always like to do. (Laughs) People are less concerned with the greenscreen and trying to hit a certain mark because it's not going to work for the effect. This was more like, "You need to ride this bike or do this trick here." But it's mostly "Can you still stay within your role and deliver?"
Gordon-Levitt: To me, when I watch the cartoons - I call CG movies cartoons because it's drawn really - I can enjoy it. I can have a great time watching it, but I never get concerned. It's like, "That's great! Look at how pretty that is!" But when you're watching a human being... and Nolan's a big believer in this, too. When you watch a lot of his biggest action scenes, they don't have any CG. Those dudes in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES fucking jumped from one plane to another. They did that. They actually did that. And you can tell when you're watching it. It's exhilarating.
Beaks: When you're making this kind of film, there's obviously a point where they're going to hand it over to the doubles. But did you ever lobby to maybe do more than they wanted you to do?
Ramirez: I think after Joe got hurt everyone took a step back. (Laughs) "Okay, maybe I'm not an action hero. Maybe it's time for my double to come in." I certainly do enjoy the thrill of making an action film. I like the danger. I like to put myself out there as much as I can.
Gordon-Levitt: There's always that desire. It's almost cliche at this point, actors wanting to do the stunt and feeling threatened by their double. Every really seasoned, skilled action person, whether it's Bruce Willis, Christopher Nolan or Christian Bale, those guys have no ego about that stuff. They're just about safety. Maybe that doesn't make as interesting story to tell, but that's the truth. The story is the movie, and we're trying to make the best movie. We're not trying to prove something.
Ramirez: And we need to give credit to those incredibly talented stunt doubles. These people are so talented in their own right. They are needed. (Laughs)
Beaks: With such an emphasis on action, how did you keep focused on your character? And how did Koepp help with that?
Gordon-Levitt: It was fundamentally in there. He very cleverly interwove the action and the story. You have a character where the basic premises of the action are also the basic traits of his character. He rides a bike that doesn't have brakes. That very much defines how the action sequences go; it also defines who he is, and his relationship with his girl.
Ramirez: And her having a brake on her bike kind of defines where she's at in her life. Sometimes it's good to live in the moment, and you can see why she's attracted to him. But I think she's at a point in her life right now where she has to move forward and think about her future. That's sort of instilled throughout the story and in the action. I think he did it really brilliantly.
Gordon-Levitt: It's because he set it up well, because he is such a master craftsman. The guy that wrote the first SPIDER-MAN and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and JURASSIC PARK. He just set it up so cleverly that the action sequences are story. It's not like the story pauses so we can have a chase. In each individual moment we are learning more about the character through what goes on in the chase sequences.
Beaks: Because this is such a physically demanding film, did either of you look to any of the great action actors for inspiration in doing this?
Ramirez: For me, and you'll have to forgive me because I'm from the Dominican Republic and didn't start watching films until later, it's Angelina Jolie. There's a vulnerability that she plays all of her action characters with. She adds that vulnerability in there, and I think it's what makes her appeal to so many people. She's not just this badass girl; she's someone who hurts and has a heart.
Gordon-Levitt: I'll say Bruce Willis. I think there's a lot in common between [PREMIUM RUSH] and DIE HARD. It takes place in one day, you've got a fine actor like Alan Rickman or a fine actor like Michael Shannon. There are a lot of parallels. Or, dare I say, DIE HARD 3, which is set in New York all in one day. And it has Jeremy Irons! And Sam Jackson! Not enough people talk about DIE HARD 3.
Beaks: It's a very influential action film in the way it's shot.
Gordon-Levitt: And it's gorgeous New York City. That's what I remember most about DIE HARD 3. I just wanted to go to New York after that. And this movie really has that. We shot it all in New York City. There are no scenes we shot in Burbank or in a studio or Toronto or downtown L.A. It's all on location in Manhattan.
Ramirez: New York is a silent character in the film. You get a really specific look at it.
PREMIUM RUSH hits theaters Friday, August 24th.