I’m “biast” (pro): love love love Joseph Gordon-Levitt
I’m “biast” (con): haven’t been a big fan of director David Koepp’s previous flicks
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Kids, do not try this at home. In real life, a bike messenger like Wilee — who zips through the streets of Manhattan with no gears, no brakes, and absolutely no respect for anyone else using public passages — is an urban hazard: I’ve nearly been run down by guys like him countless times, as have probably 99 percent of all New Yorkers. But in a zippy popcorn flick like Premium Rush? He’s a charmer, not the least because he’s played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises, 50/50), who is effortlessly cool and engaging onscreen, always. But also because this slyly structured, pseudo-real-time carnival ride ripples with undercurrents of moral complexity that end up giving Wilee — and us — pause to consider the impacts of our actions both large and small. In fact, what appears at first to be a straightforward tale of action and thrills as Wilee courts death sailing down Broadway in rush-hour traffic develops into something a lot thornier as it unfurls.
The job sounds simple enough: Wilee gets a “premium rush” assignment to ferry a small envelope from Columbia University on the Upper West Side to a location way down in Chinatown in 90 minutes. But almost as soon as he collects it, there’s a mysterious guy (Michael Shannon: Machine Gun Preacher, Jonah Hex) in a suit trying to get it away from him, and it appears he will stop at nothing to stop Wilee. Wilee has no idea what’s in the envelope, but he does have professional pride — no one gets the package he has been entrusted with except the person he’s supposed to deliver it to.
Smart stuff ricochets from every angle. What seems like outrageous coincidence — wait, the woman who needs to move the envelope (Jamie Chung: The Hangover Part II, Grown Ups) is the roommate of Wilee’s girlfriend (Dania Ramirez: American Reunion)? ridiculous! — turns out not to be, for very good reasons. Shannon is hilariously, terrifyingly unleashed, seething with violent menace and psychological chaos: his character keeps telling people his name is Forrest J. Ackerman, which we know it isn’t, and there is, weirdly and wonderfully, no explanation for his name-dropping an iconic science-fiction author. Director and screenwriter (with John Kamps) David Koepp (Ghost Town, Secret Window) uses New York City to spectacular effect, not futzing with the geography as so many films do and snappily capturing the vibe and the attitude, partly via a bike cop (Christopher Place) who also ends up on Wilee’s tale, for more obvious reasons. Place exudes a gloriously typical New York exasperation and perseverance that is a positive flip side to Shannon’s rage.
Most intriguing is Wilee’s prescience in motion, as he foresees the best way to run an obstacle course of pedestrians, taxis, wrong-way traffic, and other impediments without having to brake (since, you know, he has no brakes). Wilee’s not a stupid guy, and as we learn along the way, he’s not the self-centered guy he might appear to be, either, and makes equally quick, difficult decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong, not just what’s crashable and what isn’t. It’s all so fast and frenetic and cheerworthy in the moment that you might not realize how much it will stick with you afterward.