Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dania Ramirez in "Premium Rush." (Sarah Shatz, Columbia TriStar )
"Premium Rush," starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon, is a lot like the ticking-clock thriller of "Speed," except instead of a big bus and a bigger bomb, there's a brakeless bike and a small envelope. Which actually doesn't sound like it would work at all as a tightly wound slice of street action, but it does, and in radically fresh ways.
In a sense, the movie has its bomb in Shannon's dirty NYPD Det. Bobby Monday. He's a wired whack job with a gambling habit and rage issues. The envelope he's after has a ticket that promises to pay off his debt with some brutal Chinatown backroom money lenders. The guy who is holding the bag in every sense of the word is Wilee (Gordon-Levitt), one of New York City's cocky bike messengers. And like his namesake — Wile E. Coyote — when he's riding full tilt it's not unlike watching that infamous cartoon blur.
Basically, a story like this boils down to getting from Point A to Point B without getting killed. The challenge is how to make the obstacle course interesting. In this, writer-director David Koepp and his frequent writing partner John Kamps have, as the saying goes, put it all on the screen. In fact, the screen becomes a scene-stealing player.
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It all begins at the end. In an almost balletic deceleration of motion, the film opens with a slow pan of a bit of blue sky, then skyscrapers and finally, limbs, Wilee's, float through the frame. When body meets concrete, the time appears on-screen, and soon everything is spinning backward to a point just before this race-for-his-life officially began. Watching the seconds click off, or spin back, creates something akin to a lethal stopwatch effect so that you cringe any time it appears. It's just one of the nifty elements that keep the tension high.
The story picks up on Wilee's last run of the day. It's a premium rush job but otherwise ordinary enough — pick up a package, race through crosstown congestion and deliver it on time. Not surprisingly, it's what's inside the package that matters, and what's interesting is the way in which the film keeps you guessing about what will happen next.
Besides the cop called Monday, who keeps turning up like a bad penny, other players who become mitigating factors include Wilee's on-and-off-again girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez); his main competition, a macho messenger named Manny (Wole Park); and Nima (Jamie Chung), the girl who gives Wilee the ticket to ride. There are reasons why Nima is so desperate, why Wilee and Vanessa's relationship is rocky and why Manny is obsessed with racing him through Central Park. But rather than fully developed plot twists, they function more like shots of Red Bull, something to give the movie a jolt when watching a guy ride a bike for 90 minutes straight threatens to get boring.
What the filmmakers have done with such pizazz is exploit all the latest cultural touchstones. The bike messenger scene has its own ethos of rebellious outsiders who thrive on extreme athleticism.
The action is inventive, extensive and exciting, a bang-up job by cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen, one of the town's hot new shooters. But it is the way in which the big screen is turned into a kind of giant cellphone map app that is the real kick. Every time Wilee has to make a decision on which route to take, it comes to connect-the-dots life in a way that anyone who's ever used MapQuest will immediately recognize. (For those who know New York City well, it is even more fun.)
Wilee is a nice stretch for Gordon-Levitt, who more typically plays a hipster charmer as he did so well in "(500) Days of Summer." There was the suggestion he could go rogue in 2010's "Hesher," but almost no one saw that little indie. As Wilee, he's toughened his inner core — both literally and figuratively — in a way that makes him a more formidable presence on-screen. That was critical considering the actor had to go up against the towering force-field created by Shannon, who seems to be working his way through 50 shades of crazy. The actor has the ability to emotionally unhinge himself right in front of you, and he makes Monday fearsome even at a distance.
The guy on the bike and the bad cop prove to be a combustible combo. Who knew a bike ride could be so thrilling?
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence, intense action sequences and language
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: In general release