I can’t say I remember many of the characters’ names in “Premium Rush.” There’s Wiley, the lead (Joseph Gordon Levitt), and you can remember his name because the characters say it so often and keep making coyote references. Beyond that, it gets a bit challenging. I needed imdb.
The basic plot is that an immigrant woman in trouble needs to send a ticket that stands in for $50,000 to someone else in the city, but she’s worried that she’s too recognizable, so she sends it via bike messenger. Wiley steps in, unaware of how desirable his latest delivery is. Unfortunately for him, he’s already been spotted by the movie’s villain, a crooked cop with a severe gambling addiction who needs the ticket to clear his debts. The cop is played by Michael Shannon with such B-movie glee that you might think you’re watching a film from another era. He’s got these big, intense Peter Lorre eyes and a running monologue about the indignities he’s suffering.
Shannon and Gordon Levitt spend most of the movie playing an elaborate game of tag across the city of New York, as Gordon Levitt quickly figures out that Shannon is totally cuckoo for cocoa puffs. The movie’s greatest strength is the notion that a person could actually avoid pursuit by car if he or she were the city’s best bike messenger. Whoever performed the bike stunts in this movie possesses both catlike grace and a love of sheer recklessness. Gordon Levitt winds in between cars, down flights of stairs, into oncoming traffic, and in the movie’s best stunt piece, through a warehouse full of impounded cars, all without falling off (mostly).
Luckily, the direction in this movie (by David Koepp) is adept enough to make all of those adventures feel visceral and terrifying in a way that keeps you holding your breath, if you’re willing to relax and enjoy the B-movie magic. The movie reminded me of “Run Lola Run” or all of Tom Cruise’s movies, in the way that it made constant, propulsive motion seem like the only thing between the lead and certain death. Isn’t that what action movies are all about?
The movie does not do so well when trying to develop its characters. We get some silly business about Wiley being a golden boy who’s attended law school but dropped out, because wearing a suit is just too square for him, man. Risking death for minimum wage all day is way better than a 401K. The constant daredevil dashes through traffic snarls are entertaining enough that you almost believe him.
He has a girlfriend, played by Dania Ramirez, who’s getting tired of feeling like he loves biking more than he loves her (yes, really). She may or may not be considering the advances of another bike messenger, Manny (Wolé Parks), who is nearly as much of a cardboard cutout villain as Shannon. Manny does not like Wiley. Manny thinks he is a better biker than Wiley. Manny will not listen to reason about the all-important ticket delivery, because he is so caught up in his rivalry with Wiley.
It’s not an adaptation of “Finnegan’s Wake.” This is a movie that has the tagline “Ride like hell” on the poster. But it is fun and exciting, and as I mentioned above, it’s directed with enough visual flair to compensate for some of the sillier moments. There’s always something worthwhile in watching people excel in their chosen form of athleticism. See: the Olympics, professional sports. Its characters may be drawn in broad strokes, but it passes the Bechdel rule and it’s just plain fun.