REVIEW: An asphalt-action tale as unadorned as the fixed-gear cycle its hero rides, David Koepp's "Premium Rush" supplies just enough dramatic rationale to set a series of Manhattan bike chases in motion and then follows without pretending it cares much about anything beyond the adrenaline. A quick pace and always-enjoyable lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt will please moviegoers, even if the pic's ticking-clock approach isn't as invigoratingly pulpy here as in the Koepp-penned "Snake Eyes" and "Panic Room."
Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a law student-turned-bike messenger who blew off the bar in favor of battling traffic for peanuts. His bike, lacking fancy gear-shifts or even a brake, is dumb steel compared to the slick cycles his co-workers ride, but Wilee and the film embrace its stubborn brand of constantly forward motion as an existential imperative.
Sent uptown to his alma mater, Columbia University, to fetch an envelope destined for Chinatown, Wilee becomes the target of a bad cop (Michael Shannon) bent on stealing the package, which contains a marker for $50,000, intended as payment for smuggling a refugee from China to the U.S.
Koepp's script, co-written by John Kamps, zips back in time occasionally to explain itself -- showing, for instance, how the package's sender, a Chinese Columbia student (Jamie Chung) who happens to be the roommate of Wilee's girlfriend (Dania Ramirez), wound up fretfully entrusting this valuable slip of paper to a daredevil on two wheels.
But the main attraction of these narrative detours is the time they afford us with Shannon, who chews scenery while accumulating massive debt in Chinatown gambling dens, then desperately setting out to repay it by intercepting Wilee's package. Shannon and Aasif Mandvi (as Wilee's dispatcher) are high points in a supporting cast that otherwise fails to add much to one-note roles.
Gordon-Levitt sets aside much of his boyish charm to play a character who relies less on wit than nerve. As he hurtles down New York streets, the actor's alert eyes are as vital in conveying the kinetic geography as is Mitchell Amundsen's camera, and Koepp's occasional time-outs -- stopping action to visualize possible routes through vehicle-and-pedestrian chaos before settling on the least hazardous one -- are effective in getting us on Wilee's hyper-perceptive wavelength.
Whether Wilee is being chased by Shannon's unmarked cop car, trying to catch up to competitive co-worker Manny (Wole Parks, who with a bit more charisma could have made a mark here) or dodging the odd out-of-nowhere cab door, the cycling action is consistently invigorating, clearly relying on actual stunt work instead of CG (and recalling a time when that would have gone without saying).
Although he cheats his geography from time to time (weaseling Harlem's elevated train tracks into scenes set farther downtown, say), Koepp clearly enjoys setting his action on actual NYC streets. For all the gains planners and activists have made in carving bike lanes into the city's grid, it's strangely comforting to see that some riders will always find exciting ways to make them unsafe.