As a feature-length PSA for would-be cyclists, Premium Rush is remarkably effective: its legion of adrenaline-junkie bike couriers may eschew brakes, but they always make sure to wear a helmet. And as fast and breezy late-summer entertainment, David Koepp's action thriller is equally successful, ensuring it stays surprisingly fun even as it shuns pesky annoyances like three-dimensional characters or a compelling plot.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee (as in "E. Coyote"), supposedly the best bike messenger in all of Manhattan, which means he's extremely fast, has a pathological hatred of brakes, and an apparent death wish. But when Wilee accepts a package from an old friend -- to be delivered "premium rush," naturally -- he finds himself on the run from a dirty cop (Michael Shannon) who won't stop until he intercepts Wilee's delivery.
More importantly though, Premium Rush aims to be a cinematic thrill ride, serving up adrenaline-packed chases to audiences in 90 minutes or less. But does it deliver? To find out, I charted the movie's highs and lows.
Low: The opening scene
When The Who's "Baba O'Riley" starts blaring as Joseph Gordon-Levitt soars through the air after a run-in with a cab, you'd be forgiven for at least momentarily confusing Premium Rush with a "very special episode" of CSI: NY.
High: Koepp's stylish touches
Fortunately, that doesn't last long, and despite Koepp's generic screenplay, he made sure to give Premium Rush a distinct visual look, frequently flying out of the city streets to a miniature model of Manhattan, complete with a helpful Google Maps-style routing to give audiences a better handle on the geography of the next chase scene. And on the street, cameras mounted on handlebars and wheels help capture the breakneck speeds and tight squeezes of his bike messenger subjects.
High: Wilee's Super-Bike-Messenger-Vision
In addition to his ability to make pseudo-philosophical monologues less painful, Gordon-Levitt's Wilee displays another special skill: an ability to pause time as he runs through a mental rolodex of his possible routes, and their various outcomes, all to find the one path that won't splatter him -- or an unfortunate pedestrian -- all over the sidewalk, or the hood of an oncoming car. And bonus points go to Koepp for making these Minority Report-style pre-visions increasingly dark and hilariously graphic.
High: Any time Michael Shannon is on-screen
While Gordon-Levitt's character may be named after a certain cartoon coyote, it's Shannon's Detective Monday who plays Wile E. to Gordon-Levitt's Roadrunner. As a cop with "impulse control problems," Shannon is a scene-stealing villain of the highest order, equal parts bumbling and menacing. And thanks to his steadfast refusal to phone even this generic bad guy role in, Shannon's worth the price of admission alone.
Low: Any time neither Shannon nor Gordon-Levitt is on-screen
The rest of the cast leaves a lot to be desired, with the exception of The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi as a sarcastic dispatcher. From Wilee's cookie-cutter love interest (Dania Ramirez) to his spandex-clad nemesis (Wolé Parks), it's clear that the movie's A-list headliners are the only things keeping Premium Rush from B-movie status.
High: The pacing
Koepp takes Wilee's "brakes equal death" mantra to heart when it comes to pacing, keeping his characters constantly on the go. And for good reason: when the movie slows down to explain why the package Wilee's carrying is so important, it loses some serious momentum. The faster things move, the less time we have to reflect on Premium Rush's increasingly convoluted plot.
High: The chase scenes
They may be relatively low-stakes (Oh no! That bike cop might write Wilee a ticket!) and borderline ridiculous, but Premium Rush's two-wheeled action is also undeniably goofy fun. It's not easy to look bad-ass on a bike, no matter how hard you pedal. And as an added bonus, all that huffing and puffing means less time to deliver cringe-worthy quips. As much as we all love Gordon-Levitt, calling a burrito an "urban food log" more than once is just a little too precious.
Low: The ending
Even though Wilee successfully eludes Det. Monday for most of the movie, eventually the two have to have their final showdown. And not to give anything away, but that face-off ends up being awfully anti-climactic. It's an unfortunate low point after such a surprisingly satisfying build-up.
Final Tally: After initially low expectations, Premium Rush delivers a fun, albeit generic thriller just in time for the end of summer. And by not taking itself especially seriously and making the most of its two stars, the movie ends up with more highs than lows.