Opening with a shot of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s vehicle-struck bike messenger flying through the air in slow motion to the overfamiliar strains of “Baba O’Reilly,” Premium Rush promises an action flick marked more by flash than imagination. As it unfolds, David Koepp’s films does offer plenty of visual gloss, and its plotting, for all its temporal hopscotching, is pretty ordinary, but there’s plenty of invention in the staging of the thrilling chase sequences which the filmmakers slather generously across the movie’s running time and which mark the project as a perpetually exciting, solidly executed genre exercise.
The twist is, of course, the bikes. Koepp trades car chases, shoot-outs, and explosives for defiantly low-tech machinery, even if the film supplements its glossy/gritty camerawork with slick on-screen graphics and other signifiers of the digital age. These visual touches are most memorably employed whenever Gordon-Levitt’s daredevil messenger, Wilee (like the coyote), comes to a crossroads in which certain danger awaits. The film pauses as the messenger mentally maps out possible paths through impossible traffic, his various potential routes signaled by digitally inscribed lines running over the frozen scene, before Koepp returns us to action that dramatizes, from Wilee’s mind’s eye, the likely and usually disastrous result.
But mostly this is a film about actual bodies chasing each other on bicycles through a Manhattan so vividly signposted that anyone familiar with the borough can easily follow the geography. As such, it’s a rare thrill seeing Wilee and his pals squeeze through narrow crevices between cars, dodge pesky bike cops who don’t possess half their cycling skills, and move in relentless motion. In the case of Wilee, this perpetual movement is by design, as that daredevil and law-school dropout has removed the brakes from his ride so that stopping in the middle of traffic becomes an impossibility and not crashing while maintaining continual forward momentum an exhilarating challenge.
Employed by a messenger company that specializes in high-security operations, our thrill-seeker gets an assignment to pick up a mysterious envelope uptown at Columbia University and traverse the length of Manhattan to deliver it safely in a Chinatown alley (the famous “Bloody Angle” of Doyers and Pell). Along the way he’ll be dogged by a corrupt cop with a gambling problem (Michael Shannon, savoring his villainous role with a delightful broadness totally appropriate to this surface-deep film), negotiate a rocky romance with a female co-worker (Dania Ramirez), and discover a Chinese woman (Jamie Chung) desperate to bring her family over to America. Koepp skillfully integrates the film’s various narrative threads, rewinding time (as marked by on-screen-clock pop-ups) to show what different characters are doing at different times.
It hardly matters. The narrative is just a vehicle for action, the contents of the envelope simply the MacGuffin that drives the plot. When he tries to imbue those plotlines with additional meaning, Koepp oversteps, but he does so lightly enough that it doesn’t detract from the film’s visceral kick or breathless pacing. Rarely has a movie been so well served by its superficiality; Premium Rush proves how invigorating genre filmmaking can be in the hands of a savvy, perpetually inventive director.