Fast and twisty, scarcely decelerating, "Premium Rush" positions itself firmly as the cycling enthusiast's answer to 1999's self-explanatory "Run Lola Run." As a bare-bones, break-neck thriller, the film, written and directed by David Koepp (2008's "Ghost Town
") and co-written by John Kamps (2005's "Zathura
"), keeps adrenaline levels high while unfussily lasting a quick hour and a half. That is good, because stopping to ponder its narrative and spatial logistics for even a second reveals some seams in its design. If the viewer must have a forgiving suspension of disbelief, though, that's a small price to pay considering the picture otherwise puts to shame the recent "The Expendables 2
," which couldn't ratchet up a single electrifying moment in its entirety despite starring every other action star who's still living.
Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has traded in a would-be law career for that of a New York City bike messenger, and if cruising the streets means getting paid eighty bucks per day in lieu of a life behind a desk, so be it. Still trying to work out his relationship with fellow messenger, on-again/off-again girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), Wilee is called away to pick up a high-priority envelope from Vanessa's roommate Nima (Jamie Chung) and deliver it to an address in Chinatown within ninety minutes. The assignment sounds easy enough until Wilee is almost immediately accosted by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a crooked, in-over-his-head NYPD cop who will stop at anything to intercept the delivery. The contents of the letter could earn him the money he needs to pay off a gambling debt, but in effect could dash the hopes and dreams of its sender. Once Wilee learns the breadth of what's at stake, it becomes his single-minded mission to evade Bobby and fulfill the duties of his job.
Set in a span of time that matches the movie's length (with a couple non-chronological stops along the way to the hours preceding its present chase), "Premium Rush" goes, goes, goes, just like its savvy cyclist protag likes it. The main premise is straightforward enough, but not even the amount of kinks and conflicts Wilee faces is enough to reasonably believe that it takes him so long just to make it to Chinatown. Sure, the envelope is retrieved uptown, but the whole of Manhattan is not that big of a place. As speedily as Wilee races on his bike, weaving through traffic and seemingly never stopping for red lights, it should take him no more than ten minutes to get to his destination. It is a leap in logic that viewers at all familiar with the Big Apple will have to get over. If they can, what they'll find is a taut action-thriller, shot with a bravura steady hand by cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen (2010's "Jonah Hex
"), who manages to keep with the pace of the never-idle bikes without a wobble or shaky cam in sight.
The prospect of taking the lead role of Wilee must have been daunting for Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2011's "50/50
")or just an excuse to get paid for working out all day for several months. All the same, it's a definite physical achievement that the actor takes in stride. He never looks anything but born to be on top of his bicycle. Beyond this, Gordon-Levitt can do no wrong. His character isn't terribly layered, but the script doesn't call for him to be. He's likable, he's empathetic, he's a pleasure to spend a little time with, and that's enough. As resident foe Bobby Monday, Michael Shannon (2011's "Take Shelter
") chews the scenery and very nearly his co-stars while painting a portrait of a man who is every bit the "douchebag" Wilee labels him as. Lending solid support, Dania Ramirez (2012's "American Reunion
") shares easygoing chemistry with Gordon-Levitt as Vanessa, while Jamie Chung (2011's "Sucker Punch
") is plain terrific, arguably giving the film's most affecting, well-rounded performance as Nima.
"Premium Rush" opens and closes with The Who's "Baba O'Riley," a classic rock anthem that might be a little too far-reaching for a film as slight and silly as this one. Nevertheless, who can dispute the incorporation of a great song used well? It is but one minor, but winning, detail in an end-of-summer diversion that fulfills its promises and somehow never becomes repetitive in the face of what, in essence, is a feature-length chase sequence. Will its lasting impression see the dawn of a new day? Probably not. In the heat of the moment, though, director David Koepp has fashioned the cinematic equivalent of a theme park ridefun in the moment, inconsequential in the long run, and over in a blink.