First things first. No one should ever ride a bike in city traffic like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in “Premium Rush.” You’ll land in the emergency room and consider yourself lucky to hobble out with a few stitches or small cast. Trust me, I was a bike messenger for five years in Washington D.C., and acquired my share of gashes and broken bones.
Of course, I’m recalling all of this with smile. It was the best job I’ll ever have.
Since the well-received film is still in theaters, I’m posting my “insider’s take,” so to speak. As Baltimore managing editor Max Weiss — an actual film critic — wrote in her MaxSpace blog, “Premium Rush” is really a chase movie, and a good one. Totally works on that action-movie level. Director David Koepp captures what it’s like on the street in real time, split-second-by-split second, shooting between city buses, barreling through red lights, jumping from pavement to curb to alley, back again into the fray while ducking car doors and taxicab U-turns. Not to mention avoiding pedestrians, who often step into the mix without looking both ways. (I once narrowly avoided killing diminutive former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, maybe 80 at the time, on Pennsylvania Avenue. To this day, I’m sure she never even saw me whiz behind her.)
I knew I’d like “Premium Rush” in the opening minutes when a bike courier named “Squid” — an actual New York City bike messenger named Squid, a.k.a. Kevin Bolger — made a drop at Gordon-Levitt’s company’s offices. (Austin Horse, another real-life bike courier, served as one of the stunt doubles.) How dangerous is the job? Baltimore’s Marla Streb, a professional mountain biker, told me she got fired because she got hit too many times. And, stay for the film credits if you go to the film — there’s a shot of Gordon-Levitt after he smashed into the rear window of a taxi during filming, requiring 31 stitches to close up his forearm. (See above photo). He's smiling, naturally, after earning his battle scar. According to the New York Times, during one nine-day period of filming “Premium Rush,” at least one person went to the hospital each day.
Sure, the plot is contrived and some stunts staged. But the adrenaline rush, racing against fellow messengers until you puke — just for pride and kicks — and breaking the occasional rear-view mirror with a Kryptonite lock after a car driver tries to run you over? Yeh, that stuff happens. (Though, for the record, I never intentionally damaged a vehicle).
My only criticism, really, is about the movie that wasn’t made. The film doesn’t delve into the characters’ lives or messenger subculture. Or what’s left of bike messenger subculture in the digital age.
In D.C. back in the day, we used to play urban bike polo at the park at 15th and K late into Friday nights after work, beating a street hockey ball, and each other, with sticks made of broken golf clubs and PVC pipe. Plenty of beer on the sidelines. Weekend Alley Cat races were wild, half-race/half-party affairs. And next year, by the way, marks the 20th annual World Cycle Messenger Championships, which I competed in once, writing about it for the City Paper while embedded with a great crew of guys (and gal) from Baltimore.
The film also made me recall some of my old bike messenger buddies, including a friend who had done a good stretch in prison. Ultimately, he started his own courier company with another courier, who was also a competitive mountain biker at the time. Both smart guys and extraordinary hardworking (not to mention fearless). They’ve been in the business for 20 years, each earning enough to buy houses and take well-deserved vacations each year. They also helped me start my own courier business, which I ran for three years before becoming a fulltime journalist.
In fact, last time I called my buddy’s cell, he was riding the coast of California, taking a month from work. There’s certainly a freedom from the traditional day job and suit as a bike messenger, which is definitely an attraction in “Premium Rush” for Gordon-Levitt’s character. But there’s also a deeper freedom, of life spent outdoors, playing/working hard at something crazy that you love — most days — with a thick-as-thieves gang of like-minded pals.
For my friend, and for a few others I know, riding a bike 8, 9, 10 hours a day for years on end, proved a transformative experience and not just a daily adrenaline rush.
I still remember my first spring as a bike messenger in D.C., when I was completely blown away by the Cherry Blossom trees on the Mall, which I had apparently never really noticed before. I asked a girlfriend at the time, “Does this happen every year?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “Every year.”