Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bike messenger who takes seriously his charge to get documents and packages from one end of Manhattan to another. He will break rules of traffic and general politeness in his goal of finding a clear path and not getting hit (a skill that we see in a kind of slo-mo where he thinks through various choices — this way and he runs in to a baby carriage, that way and he’s creamed by a truck). When he picks up an envelope at a local university from Nima (Jamie Chung), he holds on to it, even after a man claiming to be campus security shows up to get it back. Later, we find out that the man, Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), is a New York City police detective and his attempt to get the envelope is part of some nefarious goings-on. Wilee isn’t sure what’s going on, but he’s certain that his job is to get the envelope to its location, dirty cop be damned.
This attitude is part of the bravado of the bike messenger life. Also part of that bravado: a drama-filled relationship with fellow bike messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) and a not-always-friendly competition (for jobs and for Vanessa) with fellow messenger Manny (Wolé Parks), a Spandex-wearing hot-shot.
At one point in his chase with Wilee, Detective Monday actually says “come on, what’s it to ya?” in exactly the voice you think that line would be said — sort of lazy, squirrelier James Cagney. Ah, I thought, so that’s where this movie is, gotcha. We’re somewhere between Jason Statham as the guy running around without a heart in the second Crank movie and, well, Statham in the Transporter movies, but all on about half speed and without the budget. Premium Rush is pure go-go, with just enough chatter (Vanessa wants an office job, Wilee washed out of law school) to make you think you’re watching real characters. Because the main action happens on bikes (including a few chase scenes where a bike cop tries to run Wilee down), we get fewer explosions and less gunplay than your average action movie. But the grittier, lightweight feel works. I think I had more fun than if the movie were a running tally of dead henchmen.
Gordon-Levitt has had such an interesting career, since his teenage stardom on 3rd Rock from the Sun. He’s done some serious acting, some comedy and romance and some big-budget popcorn movies, including 2010’s Inception and this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises. Premium Rush won’t have him on any Oscar shortlists, but the movie does show that he’s good at the close-up kind of action movie. Both Inception and Dark Knight are grand, epic-type action movies that are more detached from their characters, particularly the supporting characters that Gordon-Levitt plays. Here, he’s in the center of a rather pared down movie and he does a great job. He is both physically believable and jovial enough to hang around with without being campy.
Opening as it did in late August, Premium Rush did not get a premium spot on the movie release schedule, but if you are looking for a nice bit of low-impact entertainment in the cool air conditioning, it’s not a bad ticket. B-
Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action sequences and language. Directed by David Koepp and written by Koepp and John Kamps, Premium Rush is an hour and 31 minutes long and is distributed by Sony.