Special Delivery: Premium Rush, Pop Culture, and Cycling Culture

By: Andrew Gardner Aug 6

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I don’t hold out a lot of optimism for the forthcoming bike messenger action movie, Premium Rush with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the plucky hero, Wilee. (Pronounced wily. See what they did there?) I’m not saying that Premium Rush will be without worthwhile elements. Certainly, stunt riders Austin Horse and Tom La Marche will serve up jaw dropping fixed gear and trials action, the type that make mere pedaling seem pedestrian. For that reason, I will plug in the headphones when this movie is showing on an airplane in a few months. No, my negativity is grounded more in the chances Premium Rush has to change the fate of bicycles in major motion pictures, which is, if recent history is any indication, not good.

The first time I noticed the nearly universal treatment of bicycles in big Hollywood films was while watching a foreign film, the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In that non-Hollywood flick, there’s a point where the journalist lead character, Mikeal Blomkvist is searching for evidence of a crime at the hospital near the crime scene. The doctor, a minor character, enters the scene CARRYING A HELMET AND PUSHING A BICYCLE!!! It struck me as odd to see a bike commuting doc, a fellow who was within the film, competent, kind and helpful to the lead character. He was not a comic diversion, nor spandex laden for humor. He was just a dude on the bike, which one cannot help but realize is virtually absent from American popular culture.

Yes, we all have our bike pop culture stand-bys. There’s American Fliers, Breaking Away and for those that are reaching back a bit further, ET. Personally, I have a special (non ironic) place in my heart for the 1986 BMX movie, Rad, and its main character, Cru Jones.

Yet for every movie that shows cycling characters in a positive light, there are a dozen films or television shows that mock and emasculate those that ride bikes. Think of Steve Carell’s accessory-laden commuter in The 40 Year Old Virgin, Pedro’s Sledgehammer in Napoleon Dynamite and the father of absurdist film cyclists, Pee-Wee Herman in his eponymous Big Adventure. We may adore those characters but we don’t want to be them. Furthermore, more socially normal characters occasionally take brief, if misguided forays into riding bikes, as did Jim Halpert, of The Office, in a commuting episode of that left him soaked with sweat and looking ridiculous. There are clear rules about how bikes have to be presented in the ether of pop culture and those rules call for comedy, marginalization and absurdity.

Here’s where Premium Rush has its work cut out for it. For this movie to succeed in raising the tone for cycling- or at least in not adding to the condemnation of bike culture on the big screen, one of three things has to happen:

Option 1: The plot has to be so compelling, so utterly enthralling that millions flock to the cineplex to witness the storytelling, film mastery and utter genius that is writer-director, David Keopp’s vision for a Manhattan bike messenger in 2012. This is unlikely.

Option 2: Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, in the role as the wise and supportive dispatcher, Raj, will inspire countless would-be cyclists (fixed gear and freewheeled) to take to the streets with his mere presence in the film. This is more likely given Mandvi’s general hilarity, but odds are slim that he, alone, can save all of cycling in a supporting role.

Option 3: The cartoon-like skills of the hero on his bicycle will be more compelling to Joe America than car-focused films like The Transporter, The Fast and the Furious or (ahem) Cars. This is wishful thinking. Getting average Americans to like bikes over cars without actually putting them on a bike? Doubtful.

I should be grateful that there’s a movie with a cyclist at the center, that an example of bike-as-lifestyle is being held up without intended laughter. But I’m still skeptical. I’m a guy who loves bikes and efficiency and sustainable means and yet perhaps my favorite movies of the last five years was the well-wrought Ryan Goesling vehicle, Drive. (See what I did there?) If the cycling in Premium Rush is as carefully considered as merely the wardrobe choice for Drive, then there’s a chance it could pass as a good representation of bike culture. I’m not holding my breath, however.

In the end, the best chance for Premium Rush, to add to cycling culture rests with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. JGL needs to break through the non cycling movie-goer’s conscious mind, to plant the seed that cycling is something everyone can do, that it is compelling and cool. He needs to do this before the bicycle dream starts to break down, before the constraints of reality - that bikes are rarely presented well- jolts the viewer to reject what they are seeing.

Does anyone know if Christopher Nolan is available for the sequel to Premium Rush?

 

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