“Premium Rush” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a biker named Wilee. (Think Wile E. Coyote, the central figure of the Roadrunner cartoons.) But only he provides the power to his steel-frame, single-speed, no-brakes bicycle as he zips around Manhattan delivering messages, dodging cars, swerving around pedestrians, and generally getting a, um, “premium rush” from his job.
He prefers this dangerous existence to that of his fellow Columbia Law School grads, whom he envisions as trapped in suits and cubicles, separated from the traffic and the adrenaline boost he gets every day from coming to work. He’s in love with fellow messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who chides him for not taking the bar exam and getting the kind of desk job that she aspires to. His rival for Best Bike Messenger in NYC—as well as for the affections of Vanessa—is Manny (Wole Parks), who taunts Wilee and challenges him to a bike race, mano a mano, for bragging rights.
Wilee’s life gets more exciting still when Vanessa’s roommate, Nima (Jamie Chung), asks for him personally to deliver an envelope to a woman in Chinatown. The seemingly innocuous task turns deadly, however, when corrupt NYPD detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon, going too far over the top) demands that Wilee turn over the envelope to him. See, Bobby needs to pay off his gambling debts—he’s into Chinese dominos—and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to avoid the payback he’ll have to suffer if he doesn’t come up with the money on time—an important factor in this ticking-clock movie. Flashbacks explain why the envelope is so important and break up the chases, too.
There’s also an honest cop (played by Christopher Place) after Wilee for assorted violations of the traffic laws. We get to see some of these in slow motion, with helpful directional lines, as Wilee runs through and rejects several routes through seemingly impossible situations. Run over a baby carriage? Nope. Take a header over a cab? Bad idea. Veer in front of a truck, onto a sidewalk, and through a convenience store? Go for it!
Screenwriter/director David Koepp (whose writing credits include “Mission: Impossible” and “Spider-Man”) brings a lively imagination to the present property, and he sure can film a chase. Many chases, in fact. So many that one finally gets a bit tired of them, which is a shame, since each is a little gem of cinematography and film editing. For instance, the promised race between Wilee and Manny through Central Park and up the streets of downtown Manhattan could get excised with no damage to the plot.
On the other hand, a much more tightly contained chase inside a police impound lot is so wonderfully executed that I’d hate to see it taken out, even though the story would do perfectly well without it. Here and elsewhere, Koepp combines action and humor winningly, showcasing the skills of a small subculture—urban bike messengers—that is necessary, albeit occasionally quite annoying. Indeed, the film was shot simultaneously with a TV documentary called “Triple Rush,” and many of the actual messengers appear as stunt doubles and characters here.
“Premium Rush” is rated “PG-13” for some sporadic but realistic profanity and a bit of violence. The parental guidance might include, “Now, you kids don’t try this at home—or out in the streets.” It might endanger the younguns’ knees, elbows, and bicycles, as well as the odd innocent pedestrian, but it’s no threat to their moral development. And it’s exciting fare to cap off the summer before they head back to school.