The tyre-screeching ubiquity of the car chase in Hollywood movies is a mirror to America’s obsessive automobile culture. The sleekest, shiniest and most expensive cars (don’t ask me what they’re called) are pushed to their limits, smashed, exploded and rolled for our entertainment. But, however speedy the vehicle, or exciting the landscape, car chases are getting a bit predictable.
There can be only so many car doors closed on fireballs, ear-splitting engines gunned and impressive traffic accidents witnessed on the silver screen before this hackneyed format begins to chafe. It doesn’t do much for suspending one’s disbelief, watching one totally implausible effect follow another, as bullets shatter windscreens, metal is ripped off and yet the car keeps tearing at speed into the distance and its occupants escape with just artful scratches.
Put them on a bicycle, however, leaving nothing but Lycra between them and becoming a smear on the road, and suddenly it seems that the tension of watching Bradley Wiggins race to the finish line magically emerges.
At least, this is the case in Premium Rush, written and directed by David Koepp, the entire narrative of which takes place during one extended and breath-taking bicycle chase.
It is the latest “cycling movie” – a narrow genre normally limited to showing the sport’s competitive side (think Breaking Away and The Flying Scotsman) or quirky love stories between men and their bikes (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Bicycle Thieves, Quicksilver). But Premium Rush takes the action-movie formula (cops, criminals and speed) and puts it in New York and its central characters on two wheels.
Our hero, the aptly named Wilee, is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor who knows a thing or two about car chases, having just portrayed the Robin character in Christopher Nolan’s Batman finale, The Dark Knight Rises. As an effortlessly cool law-school-dropout-turned-bicycle-courier, he undermines the geekier perception of bicycle obsessives, adding a glint of underlying danger by choosing to ride a “fixie”, a special lightweight bike with one gear and no brakes: “Fixed gear. Steel frame. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to.” It makes a “Boris bike” look as unwieldy as a tank.
The film’s premise seems to be that life is only worth living if your legs are pedalling so furiously you’re going at 50mph in New York traffic. The gaps that couldn’t possibly be fitted through at speed in a car chase, the jumps that couldn’t possibly be managed, the last-minute swivels and twists, suddenly become plausible on a bike. The film’s general plot-line may be less so, predicated on a bent gambling-addict cop desperate to get his hands on a mysterious package Wilee has been commissioned to deliver. But the “rush” referred to in the title is absolutely delivered – and filming was consequently not without serious hazards.
“Putting actors on bikes and sending them into live New York City traffic at 30 miles per hour, in retrospect, is not a great idea,” Koepp says. “It’s dangerous. We hurt pretty much everybody. Joe [Gordon-Levitt] got the award for most stitches with 31.” Gordon-Levitt injured his arm after smashing into the windscreen of a yellow taxi when a stunt went awry. Getting actors to play their parts while weaving convincingly through passing cars at speed, without coming a cropper , is much harder than getting them to sit in a car and act while CGI effects appear on blue screens behind them, apparently.
Gordon-Levitt had four stunt-doubles. There were seven bikes for the character of Wilee: three ridden by Gordon-Levitt, three for stuntmen and another permanently mounted on a camera rig. Two trainers worked with the actors to get them comfortable acting at speed while navigating potholes, swerving and manoeuvring.
“I trained for six weeks or so, five days a week, leading up to shooting,” says Gordon-Levitt. “I had to be in good enough shape to spend 12 hours a day doing those scenes. I knew I wouldn’t be able to say, ‘oh, I’m tired’, while a 500-person film crew was waiting for me to catch my breath.” Although they coordinated the grids of traffic in each scene, it was still unpredictable because they were shooting on real, car congested streets in the Big Apple. Gordon-Levitt’s accident occurred because a United Nations diplomat with special plates, allowing him not to comply with normal traffic laws, broke through traffic and the set.
“We knew we couldn’t have anybody look at the movie and think, ‘that’s a backdrop, that’s a soundstage’,” says Koepp. “It had to be real, live New York traffic.” They needed permission from the Mayor’s Office, the NYPD, the Department of Transportation and the Metro, as buses needed to be redirected to accommodate filming.
The bikes themselves were very important. “Casting the bikes was essential,” Koepp says. “It’s like casting the horses in a Western. You want the bike to be reflective of that character’s personality.” It is a reminder that the Hollywood obsession with bigger, more obvious and extraordinary effects and gadgets can damage the way the drama unfolds.
Having marvelled at Batman’s ability to emerge from a police roadblock by switching his motorbike for a hovercraft, I’d much rather see Wilee roll under a truck while still hanging onto the handlebars of his bike and then quickly jump back on. It doesn’t have the “how did he possibly do that?” factor, it keeps your attention as the story unfurls, and it uses skills that, in the age of Bradley Wiggins, (while still completely incredible) are possible. I think the bike chase might catch on.
‘Premium Rush’ is out on 14 September