They made a lot of movies like this in the 1980s and 1990s: glorious indulgent movies where the hero had some kind of extreme sports angle worked into whatever cockamamie plot thinly constructed to serve high-octane hijinks. “Premium Rush” had me recalling wonderful rubbish like the Christian Slater classic “Gleaming the Cube” and the surfing-heist action of “Point Break.” These movies prominently feature extreme sports to give action scenes an unconventional panache. Instead of surfing or skateboarding in “Premium Rush,” it’s all about urban cycling.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“The Dark Knight Rises”) plays Wilee, a New York City bike messenger who has the kind of ridiculous devotion to his craft that can only exist on film. He’s a rebel on a bicycle who doesn’t believe in gears or brakes. No sir. This guy is the kind of adrenaline-fueled action junkie who doesn’t play by the rules. There’s a lot of effort spent early on establishing that Wilee isn’t an average everyday messenger—because that wouldn’t be enough for today’s demanding film-going audiences. Wilee is a law-school graduate who never took the BAR exam. Why not? Because being a lawyer doesn’t let him ride a bike in dangerous conditions for an insulting sum of money. I suppose it’s best. We don’t really hear about successful lawyers named “Wilee.”
The plot feels deliberately sparse. Wilee gets his hands on an envelope that had to be delivered across town. While trying to make good on his delivery, he is approached by a deranged New York City police officer trying to get his hands on the envelope. The vast majority of the film details the cat-and-mouse game as Wilee tries to avoid the cops and being splattered by midtown Manhattan traffic.
There are some extremely bare subplots dealing with relationships and human trafficking in the film, too. Actually, I was amazed how many subplots could be worked into a movie that takes place in a feverishly short amount of time. “Premium Rush” is constructed like one of those by-the-numbers chase films. However, the director, David Koepp, flips the script by injecting the film with creative flourishes and has smartly cast two fantastic actors to sell the story.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an excellent leading man. He has the kind of energy and charisma lacking in many of his peers. When I first heard of “Premium Rush,” it almost seemed like this kind of B-movie schlock was beneath him, but he’s so damned invested in the part—even something as one-dimensional and completely disposable as the world’s smartest lawyer bike courier. His enthusiasm is matched by Michael Shannon who plays the villain with the kind of scenery-chewing zeal reserved for vaudevillians and moustache-twirling scoundrels who tie beautiful young ladies to railroad tracks. In the hands of lesser actors, or performers less game, this could have been an unmitigated disaster. The entire film is carried by Gordon-Levitt and Shannon who prove that talent transcends cliché.
The action of “Premium Rush” is the real sell. And it’s a fantastically kinetic movie with a great sense of speed. Not just the bike-themed action but the entire pace of the film. It’s a zippy little movie rife with sight gags and GPS-themed transition. There’s a lot of love poured into this ridiculous lark, which makes “Premium Rush” a far better time at the movies than I ever would have expected. Just for defying every mediocre expectation I had I’m willing to call “Premium Rush” a triumphant piece of disposable entertainment. I wish more movies had this much passion and energy. This is the kind of movie they should show first-time directors of mainstream films as a textbook example of how to exceed expectations.