Silver Screen: Premium Rush ***
The end of summer always sees a final trickle of action movies deemed not quite fleet enough to compete with superheroes, computer-generated aliens, and alien-generated Tom Cruise. But a pair of this year's scrappier also-rans have proved themselves more entertaining, if a little more offbeat and small-scale. Dax Shepard's largely self-made Hit and Run wears its low budget like a badge, while the similarly under-the-radar Premium Rush is a bigger studio effort with elaborate setups on the traffic-choked streets of New York City. But Premium Rush hinges on a premise that's both obvious and a little bit silly: the thrilling world of the New York City bike messenger. It offers the kind of adulatory look into a subculture that marked 1980s teen fodder like R.A.D., Perfect, Thrashin', and Gleaming the Cube. Like those movies, Premium Rush will likely be both blessed and cursed as belonging entirely to its time.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the hipster superhero, a bike messenger named Wilee who drops out of law school, takes the break off his bike, and lives only to weave his two-wheel fixed-gear horse through traffic and drink microbrews with his ethnically diverse crew of cycling chums. He's the best there is-- literally, he wins a contest-- because he rides his bike like he lives his life: no fear and full speed ahead. (That previous sentence should be read in the cadence of a monster-truck rally announcer or a skating-rink DJ.)
Wilee's wisecracking dispatcher/boss Raj (Aasif Mandvi) gives him one last package for the day, an envelope that has to be across the city to Chinatown in an hour and a half. What Wilee doesn't know is the envelope contains a slip of paper that holds the key to crooked cop Bobby Monday's future. Monday (Michael Shannon) is a gambling addict looking to make good on a debt, and he's willing to stop at nothing to get the package Wilee has sworn to deliver. Thus the chase is on through the madness of Manhattan rush hour as Wilee ducks Monday, Chinese gangsters, a vengeful bike cop, and a jealous coworker, all while simultaneously trying to work things out with his hardbodied cyclist girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez).
Premium Rush isn't high art, but it's artfully executed cheese, helmed by cowriter and director David Koepp, who has worked on a movie marathon's worth of blockbusters (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man). Koepp and cowriter John Kamps break up the real-time action of Wilee's journey, which is nearly identical to the movie's running time, with flashbacks to earlier in the day connecting the web of characters. It's an effective strategy that maintains momentum even when moving backward.
Koepp barely hides the fact that he's making bike porn. Wilee zips about with a thick chain and lock around his waist, proudly on a steel-framed fixed-gear while the camera leers at slicker, more expensive machines. Jargon is zealously tossed around, although the grand pandering to the cyclist set doesn't come until the flash-mob sequence at the end that serves as a we-are-the-two-wheeled-world moment.
If that sounds like it's going to be hilariously dated in ten years, well, it probably will be, along with the movie's obsessive use of smartphone GPS and Google Maps simulations to establish locations. That said, the practical reality of being a bike messenger in New York City is pretty hair-raising and lends itself to some thrilling chase sequences that'll conjure up adrenaline in any era. Levitt, doing an impressive amount of his own stuntwork (though surely not nearly all of it), weaves and skids his way through some crazy obstacles, and Koepp nicely captures the kineticism of the ride. “Premium” is a bit of a stretch, but it's still a rush.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.