I tend to be a bit of a relativist when it comes to weighing the merits of a film. What did it try to be? What were its objectives? How did it structure its own reception? And on the whole, the biggest failures are the most ambitious films. Prometheus positively springs to mind. And as a kind of corrollary of that, the films which are most successful have the most modest intentions. But, at a certain point, you need to step back and take a more objective view on something – does the intention lift the result, or was the bar set so low that it was just like flat ground.
Premium Rush is very much in the latter camp; a film with such limited objectives, with such an unquestioning acceptance of plot conventions and character stereotyping, that you do have to wonder why they bothered to make it at all.
Usually, when a film appears to fail, I set myself the challenge of thinking about how it could have been fixed with the minimum number of changes. The challenge here is the same – how could it have done something interesting with its basic components? Let me then tell you everything you need to know about the film. Spoilers seems like an awfully strong word for something this hackneyed, but read on with that disclosure in mind.
A bike messenger is hired to (unknowingly) deliver a chit worth many thousands of dollars so that a Chinese immigrant can bring her small son to the USA. A corrupt policeman wants that package in order to pay off his gambling debts. Alongside this main plot, the bike messenger is trying to patch things up with his girlfriend, who is worried that the way he rides implies a death-wish, and he has a rivalry with another messenger over who is the fastest in their company. Almost needless to say, the corrupt cop gets got, our hero demonstrates his superiority but in a way which brings them all together happily, and things get patched up.
Well, first of all, the nobility of the money transfer is all wrong, and so is the corruption of the cop. That just removes all moral questions from the table. A win-at-all-costs cop going extra-legal to win the war on crime with the bike messenger an innocent dupe means that we’ve at least got the “ends-means-justification” question, for whatever that’s worth.
Secondly, our hero can’t remain our hero. The death wish component needs to be amped up – instead of emphasizing that it his supreme skill that gets him through, we need to see that these risks he takes are both needless and have severe consequences. To show his supreme skill, they show him visualizing different routes and the consequences of taking the wrong one – hit by a car, clipping a pedestrian who gets hit by a car. All they need to do is add another option to a handful of the analysis-sequences showing him take the sub-optimal, more dangerous of the possible choices. Now we have a hero that we’re not sure we can believe in straightforwardly, because there’s clearly something more going on below the surface. Something dark.
Lastly, his rival and his lover need to become a single character. One who is worried by the risks he takes, but who nevertheless pushes the competition. Instantly that supporting character is themself interesting. Since they only appear in one nominal scene together, that shouldn’t change the plot or basically any of the dialogue, you just have one actor instead of two and it doesn’t matter whether you submerge the female lover into the male rival or vice versa, it still works.
Three changes that are basically cost-neutral and require minimal if any dialogue change other than the one scene where the cop is shown gambling and losing, and suddenly we’ve destabilized the comfortable footing and tenor of this drama. Maybe that would fail – but it’d be worth it.