The skeleton of “Premium Rush” is as old as the movies: a chase. It’s how the skeleton is fleshed out that makes the movie such loopy, crazed, dangerous fun.
Writer/director David Koepp mixes sharp dialog, a hip tone and top-flight actors to create a nail-biting, seat-squirming thriller about a bike messenger. It’s an escapist blast.
The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose presence these days is almost a guarantee of a great movie. He plays Wilee, nicknamed after the tenacious coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. He’s plenty smart, a Columbia Law School grad, but he’s addicted to the parkour-on-wheels adrenaline surge of dodging death on Manhattan’s chaotic streets.
In a voice-over of telegraphic brevity he introduces himself: “I like to ride. Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.” The exhilaration on Gordon-Levitt’s mug as he negotiates serpentine lane shifts is joyous to behold. He takes in every option in an instant, visualizes potential hazards and collisions, then fearlessly weaves and bobs through the least-lethal alternative. The chorus of screeching brakes, blaring horns and profane suggestions he inspires is music to his ears.
He’s part of a bustling, multicultural, competitive bike-delivery service, where every supporting role is cast to wicked perfection. Spandex-clad hot dog Manny (Wole Parks) is Wilee’s rival for deliveries and for the affections of alluring Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). Wilee aims to wheedle his way back into her good graces by handling a high-priority drop for her roommate. But volatile Bobby Monday (seasoned, sad-eyed Michael Shannon) wants that thin envelope, too. And he has a car. And a gun. And an NYPD detective’s badge.
Once the no-flab story is set in motion, it rockets along with breakneck velocity, with Vanessa, Manny and a hard-charging bike cop (Christopher Place) joining the dash.
Koepp executes the hide-and-seek, cat-and-mouse cross-town chases in visually striking style, and vividly evokes the textures of diverse neighborhoods. He divides the story into non-chronological chapters, handling the time shifts adroitly, staying on track and keeping us guessing. He goes easy on the violence and when he does unleash it, it’s fast, impressive and terrible.
Everyone has an urgent stake in the proceedings, but nobody’s going to nuke Times Square if the package doesn’t arrive on time. Rather than force-feeding us the usual action-thriller gimmicks – sneering drug lords, secret microchips, government cover-ups – Koepp gives the plot a pleasing plausibility, and rich dashes of New York City local color.
The same goes for Wilee’s nemesis, Bobby. He’s a multifaceted character, not a stock villain. With his dry wisecracks, brawling masculinity and colorful shortcomings (he’s hooked on Chinese dominoes), he could be the hero of another movie. Here, he hits a patch of tough luck that gets worse at every turn, as does his judgment and impulse control.
Shannon makes such a feast of Bobby’s jovial duplicity that you may find yourself rooting for both Wilee and his adversary. Which was the pleasing confusion that made those Road Runner cartoons such jaunty delights.