A lean and efficient action thriller, Premium Rush is a nuts-and-bolts B movie delivers its cheap thrills without pretense or apology, and after a summer of lackluster movies punctuated by big-budget comic book spectacle, it’s downright refreshing.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises) stars as Wilee, a law school drop-out working as a daredevil bicycle messenger in Manhattan. Not cut out for a job requiring gray suits and regular hours, Wilee is something of an adrenaline junkie: he rides a single-speed, fixed-gear steel-frame bike with no brakes, and weaves it through pedestrian and auto traffic like a rebel pilot making the trench run on the Death Star.
A routine delivery puts Wilee in the sights of crooked cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who desperately wants to get his hands on the envelope before it’s delivered. Wilee tries to piece together exactly what is going on while being pursued by Monday through the streets and alleys of Manhattan, with the bulk of the plot taking place over the course of a couple of chaotic hours.
That’s pretty much the gist of it, with a couple of standardized subplots involving Wilee’s on-the-rocks romance with a co-worker (Dania Ramirez) and rivalry with another (Wolé Parks). In lesser hands it would have added up to very little, but director David Koepp (co-writing with John Kamps) is no slouch when it comes to B-grade genre flicks, and long ago mastered the fine art of pacing both as a director and screenwriter, with credits that include Trigger Effect, Stir of Echoes, Jurassic Park, Panic Room, and Spider-Man.
Rather than graft a lot of unnecessary detail on a frame that can’t carry it, he keeps the story simple and brisk, whisking along with Wilee as he dodges cars, bullets, and bicycle cops, taking us inside his head as he plots whatever course is least likely to splatter him across the pavement. It only founders when he throws in a few expository flashbacks; they’re intended as narrative flourishes but are mostly distracting.
Ultimately, the show belongs to Gordon-Levitt, who gets to play something other than humorless hero (Inception, TDKR) or sensitive romantic (500 Days of Summer, 50/50), and Shannon, who is quickly making a career out of playing weird and/or villainous. True, the material isn’t a challenge for these guys, but neither of them phones it in. Instead, we get a hero with an infectious lust for life and an obnoxiously scummy whack-job straight out of a Robert Aldrich production. Together, they generate the kind of energy that’s been missing from this summer’s crop of big dumb movies.