Premium Rush moves like New York City — fast and hard, with nary a backward glance. The movie is about Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a NYC bike messenger tasked to deliver an envelope. This envelope contains something very much desired by Detective Monday (Michael Shannon), a corrupt cop who wants to intercept it before it reaches its destination. Wilee is probably named after the luckless cartoon character, but he’s more like the Road Runner, with the cop as the coyote. Most of the city cops in the film, including a bike cop Wilee consistently stymies, are annoyances or obstacles. It’s an eerie coincidence that Premium Rush opened on the same day that New York City police, trying to take down a gunman, ended up wounding nine bystanders. New York’s finest, indeed.
Apart from its unintended ironies, Premium Rush is a fat-free thriller with breathtaking high-speed bike chases — we’re told the footage is unfaked — through busy Manhattan streets. Professional stunt drivers can almost do flashy, bone-crunching car chases in their sleep, but what must really require nerve-racking attention are the many scenes here in which cars are always braking within inches of hitting a bicyclist. There’s a lot of subtle yet thrilling car choreography here, reminding us that sometimes it’s more exciting when you see two or three near-simultaneous accidents narrowly averted.
Wilee is a great bicyclist, eschewing gears and even brakes; he relies on his legs and his instincts, and we see the latter at work at several points when Wilee has to make a split-second decision which way to go, and his imagination plays out various scenarios (if you go this way, you hit someone’s stroller; if you go that way, you’re gonna fly over someone’s hood). It’s as if Wilee’s got a rapid-fire GPS in his head that steers him to safety — in most cases. The director of Premium Rush is David Koepp, who’s primarily a screenwriter but has made a few interesting films, chiefly his directorial debut The Trigger Effect. Here, Koepp just takes us for a ride, no subtext required or desired. It’s a trim piece of work, maybe his best, because it isn’t bogged down and it knows how to sketch characters on the fly. In the minimalist-thriller race, I’ll take this over the pretentious Drive in a New York minute.
It helps that the Road Runner and the coyote are impeccably cast; Joseph Gordon-Levitt is accessible, smart, athletic, everything a young action hero needs to be, while Michael Shannon, born in Kentucky and raised there and in Chicago, almost single-handedly brings a ’70s New York flavor to the movie. (Detective Monday isn’t always eating a sloppy, garlicky sandwich, but spiritually he is.) There’s more New York irritability, desperation and unchecked pride in Shannon’s performance than in the entirety of the Taking of Pelham 123 remake from a few years ago. Shannon usually plays suffering saps in indie films (and is great at it), but here he’s clearly having a great time and shares it with us. The movie doesn’t stop there, surrounding Wilee with a crew of colorful support, including Dania Ramirez as Wilee’s ex-girlfriend and fellow bike messenger and Aasif Mandvi as his dispatcher. Everyone in the film has New York fever, and every damn time you see a cop he always interrupts himself to hassle someone over something small.
Premium Rush might be purer if we never knew what was in the envelope, but we find out it can lead to a little boy’s freedom. On one level that’s kind of a bummer — do it for the kid! — but on another level it adds some warmth and urgency to the chase. And the movie keeps going at a clip; the editors, Jill Savitt (who’s cut most of Koepp’s films) and Derek Ambrosi (making his feature debut), can take a well-earned bow. This is the kind of low-expectation late-summer film that can all too often fall under the radar but delivers more honestly and forcefully than most of its warm-weather predecessors. Watching Wilee and his cohorts bob and weave in and out of bleating traffic while Michael Shannon hilariously chews the scenery (minus one tooth) offers, if not pure cinema, at least pure entertainment.