David Koepp’s bike courier thriller Premium Rush isn’t any big deal, which makes it highly likeable. Most action movies these days are so rife with spectacle that they lose the human element– the sense that anyone is in danger or that what we’re seeing is even remotely plausible. This one gives us a more-or-less realistic world in which the biggest catastrophe imaginable is to take a tumble in traffic. Accordingly, the handful of tumbles we see are fairly effective, although not quite as effective as the narrow escapes.
The young hero, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, navigates the streets of Manhattan on a fixed-gear bike, which means he has no brakes and has to keep pedalling until he reaches his destination. Whenever a collision is imminent, he runs through the possibilities in his head as if plotting a football play: take a left and he’ll hit an oncoming truck; take a right and he’ll plough into a baby carriage; but take a quick left followed by a quick right and he’ll make it through unscathed.
The plot, for a good while, is satisfyingly simple: the hero picks up a mysterious envelope on the Upper West Side and is told to deliver it to a woman in Chinatown. Before he can head off, he’s confronted by a shifty-eyed Michael Shannon, who wants the envelope for himself. The rest of the movie is one long chase sequence, with Shannon and a number of other folks forcing Gordon-Levitt to peddle his skinny butt off. From the looks of it, Koepp filmed on every street in Manhattan (Getting all the shooting permits must’ve been a nightmare). I’m not familiar enough with the city to know how accurate the film’s geography is, but I didn’t detect any glaring errors (If the film historian Thom Anderson ever does a N.Y.-focussed sequel to Los Angeles Plays Itself, this movie could fill a whole chapter).
Koepp, who wrote the script as well as directed, supplies a unique backdrop in the form of the courier service Gordon-Levitt works for. We meet a bunch of his co-workers, most all of them cocky in one way or another, and they get caught up in the chase, too. There’s a bit too much talk about the zen-purity of cycling and the glories of speed (“A bike wants to keep moving”), as if being a courier were akin to being an elite Navy Seal or something. But Koepp also gets a lot of comic mileage out of the couriers’ us-against-them conception of the city. Slow pedestrians and taxi drivers are their sworn enemies, and the antipathy is mutual. “Everyone in Manhattan hates you,” a cop tells Gordon-Levitt.
The movie takes a turn for the worse in its final third — the plot gets dragged out and overcomplicated, and the revelation of what’s in the envelope adds an unwanted heart-tugging element. But up until then, Premium Rush is good, breezy fun, and it’s worth seeing just for Michael Shannon’s witty performance. His corrupt cop character talks tough like Cagney, but with an undertone of petulant entitlement, and he’s so annoyed about having to keep chasing that envelope that his eyes seem ready to pop from his skull. Koepp gives Gordon-Levitt’s character the name Wilee (“Wilee? As in Wile E. Coyote?”), but it’s Shannon who most embodies the Loony Tunes spirit, pursuing his roadrunner with dogged, doomed persistence. If only he’d known to order from Acme.
Scott MacDonald writes about cinema for Toronto Standard.