Navigating the streets of Manhattan on a vehicle is hard enough as a pedestrian or behind the wheel of a car. But imagine having to do it on a bicycle--without the benefit of either a sidewalk or an airbag. Now picture having to do it while delivering documents on a tight deadline. That's the world we're thrown into in the pulsatingly thrilling Premium Rush.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a cocky, balls-to-the-wall bike messenger. He never stops. Literally, his bike has no breaks. No gear shifts either. To him, it's part of the rush, integral to what he considers his ethos. To others, he merely has a death wish. That also happens to be the main reason, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez)--a fellow bike messenger--wants to split up with him, giving Manny (Wolé Parks), Wilee's rival, a chance to swoop in.
Their headquarters are like some sort of mini Grand Central Station with cyclists running in and out and their boss Raj (Aasif Mandvi) on a headset taking calls and barking out orders for deliveries and pickups. The end of this particular day has an urgent call coming in just as all the messengers are leaving for the day. Either by sheer coincidence or screenwriter contrivance, the order is placed by Nima (Jamie Chung)--Wilee's friend and Vanessa's soon-to-be ex-roommate. It's an envelope, holding what we will soon learn is a ticket worth a lot of money. Just as he's about to leave, Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a corrupt police officer also after the ticket to pay off a large gambling debt tries to stop him from embarking on the delivery. But once it goes in the bag, Wilee tells him, it stays there until the destination.
The first of several high-octane car/bike chases begins here as Monday tries to stay on Wilee's heels from Columbia University all the way down to Chinatown. The story about the ticket--what it means, why it's worth so much--is mere MacGuffin. It's a credit to director/screenwriter David Koepp that it's compelling enough and the stakes are high enough that it all works, but I often wondered while watching the movie if it would be more successful as a sort of gonzo action movie, eschewing as much plot as possible and not letting us (or even Wilee himself) know why he was being chased.
But the opening shot of the movie announces a different set of narrative intentions. The film begins with a low-angle, slow-motion shot of Wilee flying through the air then landing in the middle of a busy intersection. He was hit by a cab and Vanessa is screaming at him (though it's inaudible since the camera switches to his point-of-view) to see if he's okay. The screen says "6:33" then pulls away above the action as the clock winds its way back to 5:30, where (at least part of) the story started.
The movie will continue to navigate like this--jumping back, catching up with itself, going back to explain something else. In lesser hands, that kind of overwriting (and over-exposition, really) would feel tedious. But here it never takes away from the momentum of the film and each flashback feels keenly in rhythm with its eventual lead-up to the bigger action scenes.
And those action scenes are quite exhilarating. The action isn't hyper-edited either as in, say, the Paul Greengrass Bourne movies. But it's the camera itself that provides the kinetic energy, following the cyclist as they go whizzing past the traffic-jammed cars and around the tight intersections at a high speed. There's a high rate of cutting, yes, but where many films overcut to the point of overwhelming confusion, this one gives you a real sense of space.
Gordon-Levitt has matured nicely from his child and teenage days to a pretty reliable leading man. Yet he still retains the exuberance of those early days that's nicely calibrated for the character of Wilee, especially in flashback scenes with Vanessa and the beginning scenes with Michael Shannon's Monday.
Shannon himself has a reputation for playing intensely offbeat characters, both in a leading and supporting role. But here Shannon undercuts Monday's potential menace with an exasperated ineffectualness. In his own way, he's as much of an anonymous everyman as Wilee. Yes, he's got some nominal power as a corrupt cop, but his desperate attempts at obtaining the ticket fail spectacularly. The film makes the explicit reference to our hero's cartoon namesake. But make no mistake, Monday's the Coyote here and Wilee's the Road Runner.
I've complained recently about the tired retreads we've been seeing this summer. It's a familiar refrain, yes, but if you're not suffering from a similar form of sequel-itis as I am, maybe you don't care. But if you are, then Premium Rush might just be a perfect antidote.