David Koepp’s “Premium Rush” is as meat-and-potatoes as action pictures get, though such a masculine descriptor seems ill-fitted for a movie about a guy who uses a bicycle, not a muscle car, as his main method of transportation. That said, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is manlier than your average tights-donning, butt-waving weekend cyclist; he sports plain clothes and rides a fixed-gear bike, sans breaks, as he delivers packages throughout Manhattan. The viewer learns little more about Wilee than these basic attributes and the fact he had a failed relationship with sexy co-worker Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who he desperately wants to win back.
The movie treats Wilee less as a human being than as a vehicle for its actual subject, a Sharpie-marked movie ticket that he is hired to courier. It’s a claim cheque worth $50,000 in laundered cash, which Columbia grad student Nima (Jamie Chung) earned in order to smuggle her son out of China, where immigration officials have held him up as a way of punishing Nima for her anti-Sino blogposts. Wilee has no idea that his possession of what appears to be an ordinary envelope could be life-threatening, for corrupt N.Y.P.D. detective Monday (Michael Shannon) knows of its contents and is desperate to steal them to pay off a shylock to whom he is indebted. A big, fat chase to the Chinatown delivery point ensues.
Needless to say, Koepp could care less about the material’s glaring logical deficiencies. For instance: Why would Nima’s payee need the money to be laundered? It would seem that the bundle of cash she exchanged for the ticket would be a far better form of payment. Secondly, why does Wilee care so much about the package as to engage in dangerous situations with Detective Monday? Even after Nima confesses its true value over the phone, his selfless drive is incomprehensible. And why did Nima hire Wilee to deliver the ticket, anyway? Yes, she knew Monday was after her, but she had to have realized that he would also pursue Wilee, no matter how sneaky the courier’s bike riding skills. Quickly hopping into a cab to personally deliver the ticket would have been a far more rational choice.
The above improbabilities may seem like screenwriting flaws in the context of a review, even for a cornball affair like “Premium Rush,” but they are actually signs of Koepp’s considerable skill as a filmmaker. So many action movies get caught up in extensive plotting when it does nothing to service their main attraction: an adrenaline rush. But Koepp here gives the audience the bare minimum amount of setup needed to fuel the action and runs–err, pedals–with it. He does his best to ensure that the viewer never spends too much time scrutinizing the thin story by giving it a non-linear structure, keeping the viewer occupied even during the fleeting moments in which Wilee’s life and/or Nima’s son’s future are not imminently threatened.
That said, the action does get tiresome by the movie’s hour mark. After all, how much can a filmmaker do with a guy on a bike? Koepp paces the proceedings as briskly as possible and Mitchell Amundsen’s ‘Scope cinematography makes picturesque use of the New York City scenery, but Wilee riding away from his pursuer is only engaging on its own for so long. It’s clear that Koepp is reaching for spice when he repeatedly engages in slow-motion sequences that show Wiley contemplating how to safely weave through traffic, with onscreen arrows illustrating each potential path. This stylistic detour is amusing the first time that Koepp implements it–especially for its subtle nod to one of the film’s major influences, “Run Lola Run,” in its recognition of the profound effects of split-second decisions–but it’s tiresome by the third.
Luckily, the action sequences aren’t Koepp’s only asset when it comes to entertaining the audience. Easily the best part of “Premium Rush” is Michael Shannon, who hams up his usual psycho to fit the campy nature of the material. In addition to Shannon’s outrageous general attitude, he has some very funny one-liners as he madly pursues Wilee–many of which seem to have been improvised–and a scene-stealing mini-monologue in the back of an ambulance. Gordon-Levitt may adorn all the publicity materials, but this is Shannon’s movie. It’s a reasonable prediction that even those viewers who are underwhelmed by Koepp’s execution of the action sequences will leave “Premium Rush” satisfied, simply because the virtuoso actor is so damn lovably over-the-top.