The lovably ridiculous bike-messenger thriller “Premium Rush” is a welcome throwback. In a film world where genre fare is elevated to the level of serious cinema, and B-movie helmers have a penchant for self-aware irony, they just don’t make dumb movies like they used to. But “Premium Rush” deftly straddles the line between stupid and clever for the entirety of its brisk running time, wearing its inessentiality on its sleeve, and though B.O. will be modest, the pic could thrive in its natural habitat as lazy Sunday cable fodder.
Directed and co-scripted by frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator David Koepp (screenwriter on “Jurassic Park,” “War of the Worlds,” etc.), and starring Christopher Nolan muse Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the aptly named protag Wilee, “Premium Rush” feels engineered to provide its principals with a bit of a breather between shouldering blockbusters. It’s clear that everyone involved, from cast to crew, understands the inherent silliness of the material, but while the film never tries to introduce any undue seriousness into the proceedings, it never winks at them either, earnestly embracing the idea that Manhattan’s kamikaze corps of bicycle messengers exists as a band of Kerouackian urban pirates.
Spending the vast majority of his screentime sweating atop a bicycle, Wilee is a former law student who fancies himself a samurai of the bike-messenger trade, perilously weaving through traffic on a fixed-gear all-steel model with no brakes. Lest the danger of the job escape audiences, the film opens on Wilee’s flailing body hurtling through the air in slow-motion after a collision, immediately flashing back to several hours prior. (The relentlessly non-chronological film is full of onscreen clocks, maps and text messages, which, however chintzy, greatly reduce the need for expositional ballast.)
Embroiled in some pre-existing drama with fellow messenger and girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who herself seems to be taking a fancy to another co-worker, the jockish Manny (Wole Parks), Wilee had taken on a mysterious delivery earlier in the day, agreeing to shepherd an envelope from Vanessa’s roommate, Chinese exchange student Nima (Jamie Chung), across the borough to a Chinatown dive. Immediately intercepted by a sweaty, malevolent detective (Michael Shannon) who’s keen to recover the envelope, Wilee takes off on a street chase that will essentially constitute the rest of the film, further complicating things by attracting the attention of a dogged, accident-prone bike cop (Christopher Place).
Through all the time-jumping and nonstop pedaling (even Bradley Wiggins would struggle to keep pace with this crew), a story eventually emerges involving organized crime, immigrant smuggling and the perils of Pai Gow poker addiction, with hints of a “Chinatown”-esque skeleton in Wilee’s closet explaining his curious aversion to brakes. Paying attention to this irregularly unfolding narrative is entirely optional, however, and not particularly recommended, as the film never pauses long enough to linger.
Most of the actors exude a general laissez-faire attitude throughout — even Gordon-Levitt’s bloody real-life crash during filming is played for laughs in the closing credits — though Shannon takes the opportunity to consume every inch of scenery with ferocious gusto. Marble-mouthed to the extent that he renders “uncooperative” as a two-syllable word, he manages to evoke a slightly cuddlier version of Gary Oldman’s schizoid cop in “Leon: the Professional.”
In the early going, the film does well to exploit the anarchic geography of downtown Manhattan for a series of setpieces, though it runs out of ideas toward the end, eventually dispensing with all attempts at creativity and simply dropping huge cranes and balance beams into its cyclists’ paths. In the film’s most eye-rolling gimmick, Wilee weaves through traffic by essentially stopping time and visualizing all possible routes through traffic a la Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes”; never are the film’s budgetary limitations more apparent.