Feverishly pursuing a nondigital chase

Premium Rush,starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a bike messenger in New York City,largely avoids computerised effects for its stunts in heavy traffic

Written by New York Times | Published: August 26, 2012 1:47:57 am

It took a lot of nerve for director David Koepp to include a chase under an elevated New York City train in Premium Rush,about a bike messenger’s frantic race to deliver a package from one end of Manhattan to the other.

Audiences could easily have been distracted by memories of one of the best-known chases in cinema history: when Gene Hackman barrels through traffic in a car to catch a criminal who has hijacked a subway train running on an elevated track in William Friedkin’s 1971 film The French Connection. Besides,it’s not just the legacy of The French Connection they have to contend with. Ever since the Ku Klux Klan galloped across the screen on horseback in The Birth of a Nation,filmmakers have been finding new ways to thrill audiences with chase scenes.

Koepp,59,whose credits include four smaller-budgeted films under his directing belt but is best known as an A-list screenwriter of Hollywood blockbusters,studied a wide swath of chase scenes,from the classic chariot race in Ben-Hur to the breathless,techno dash of 1999’s art-house hit Run Lola Run. He was preparing for “a stunt movie,not an effects movie,that was reliant on human ability,” he said.

Koepp described Premium Rush,as a “map movie,where you see this guy who has to get from here to here,” extending his 6-foot-3 frame so that one hand was above his head and the other was near his waist,signifying a route from Columbia University to Chinatown. Wilee,the courier played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt,has to beat a deadline,a corrupt cop and the many obstacles that the city throws at him. The key was to make the journey feel real,said Koepp,who noted that his film is “96 percent” computer-trickery free: “We want audiences to be amazed by what people are capable of.”

“There are two kinds of chase scenes in movies today,” Koepp said. “The ones that are shot with CGI”—computer-generated imaging—“and the ones that are not.” He is no stranger to authentic-looking chase scenes,having co-written “Carlito’s Way,” which has one of the most heart-stopping sequences in movie history,in which Al Pacino is fatally pursued on subway cars and through Grand Central Terminal.

Koepp embraced realistic stunt-action for Premium Rush because “with CG,you can always feel the fingers on the keyboard,no matter how good it gets,” he said. “With stunts,you know it had to hurt.” And it did. In a nine-day stretch,at least one member of the production needed emergency medical treatment each day. This included an incident when two lanes of the Avenue of the Americas had been closed to traffic. An irate man driving a car with a diplomat’s license plate swerved onto the set,causing a domino effect that catapulted Gordon-Levitt off his bike,into a taxi window and to the hospital for 31 stitches.

Koepp used an array of techniques to capture bicyclists speeding through traffic,including a 10-foot camera arm rigged to the trunk of a Porsche Carrera. One of the most difficult tasks was simply maintaining camera focus. But Koepp dismissed shortcuts,like ferrying Gordon-Levitt and his bike on a moving vehicle.

Koepp may not have been able to emulate the same catch-as-catch-can filmmaking,but he can certainly claim to be riding into uncharted territory. There are few convincingly thrilling urban bike chase sequences in film. One of the better ones,in New Jack City,featuring Chris Rock bouncing down stairs on a BMX bike,veers toward the farcical.

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