Premium Rush is a dizzying sleeper of a movie about bike messengers in Manhattan trying to deliver a package that everyone seems to want. It’s a quintessential New York movie, a whirligig action ride featuring fearless couriers who zigzag through traffic uptown, downtown, from the West Side Highway to FDR and back again. As co-written and directed by prolific Hollywood scribe David Koepp, it’s 91 minutes of tension and laughs and fun. The movie feels fresh, and it’s devoid of explosions and employs but a bit of CGI, cleverly used. What it does have is ingenuity, in spades. Imagine that in this year’s crummy summer movie landscape.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who seems to not only be in everything at the moment but also great in everything, plays cycle jockey Wilee, an overeducated messenger who eschews the notion of 9 to 5 office life for the thrill of cruising through traffic, often without brakes, usually on the verge of sudden death. He’s the best and the fastest of the lot, which also includes girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) and rival Manny (Wole Parks).
When Wilee gets an assignment to deliver a “premium rush” envelope from a young woman named Nima (Jamie Chung), it sets off a chain of events ensnaring both colleagues as well as a corrupt detective, played with gusto by Michael Shannon in another one of his wily, unpredictable portraits of men torn apart, this time a gambler into the Chinese mafia for a hefty sum.
The envelope itself contains a ticket worth thousands of dollars, the sum of which will smuggle the woman’s young son into the city—she’s an immigrant long-separated from her child due to a visa snag. It’s also the ticket out of his debt for Bobby Monday (Shannon), who spends the first part of the film in a delirious chase across the city, trailing Wilee in an unmarked car in what strikes us as something that must have been herculean to coordinate and shoot in Manhattan’s bumper-to-bumper rush.
Once the action starts in Premium Rush it never flags, and director Koepp (who also helmed one of my favorite contemporary movies, The Trigger Effect) keeps things moving at such a clip you can barely catch your breath. The riding—and that’s the majority of this movie—was done by Levitt and several dozen stunt riders, bobbing and weaving in and out of breakneck traffic in scenes so tense you wonder how no one lost his life during the shoot.
Premium Rush is all about movement, and it’s not particularly deep though it does manage a sweet romance between Wilee and Vanessa when it takes momentary seconds to pause. But this lack of subplots serves the film well, giving its narrative a cruise-missile trajectory buoyed by the fine performances of Gordon-Levitt and Shannon. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and a welcome surprise to the August movie dumping ground.
3 1/2 stars.