Premium Rush is the sort of title that works two ways, both as the kind of delivery service proffered by the bike messengers of David Koepp‘s film, and as a description of the sort of thrill one of those messengers—Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)—gets from his chosen profession. Let’s get the former out of the way quickly: The envelope handed to Wilee is a MacGuffin, the object that sets him pedaling across Manhattan, dodging pedestrians, taxi cabs, buses, and bicycle cops. Though the movie backtracks a bit to establish the particular importance of this envelope and its contents, it only matters so much as another man—Detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon)—wants it for himself. See, Det. Monday’s in deep with a Chinese gambling concern, and he has a very tight deadline, by which he needs to have his debt paid. The envelope is worth enough money to do just that, but, unfortunately for him, what goes in Wilee’s bag stays there until it’s delivered.
So Premium Rush is a citywide chase, incorporating elements of Looney Tunes and Choose Your Own Adventure novels (at crucial junctures in a ride, Koepp shows the routes Levitt can take, and the possible outcomes each hold). Its characters aren’t impressively drawn, but they spend most of the movie passing by in a blur. The basics of bicycle messenger services, as laid out by the film, are thus: Manhattan is a busy, traffic-choked city, and regular delivery services aren’t nimble enough to handle small packages and ticking clocks. Bicycle messengers, who defy death for staggeringly little pay, ride their way through the city, competing for deliveries and doing their best to not eat pavement. It sounds competitive, and is. One of Premium Rush‘s few plotlines involves Wilee’s rival Manny (Wolé Parks), a jacked-up cyclist who has a thing for Wilee’s ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) and is willing to go to any length to prove his superiority. Not everybody is interested in competition, though. When an entire city fears and hates your kind, I suppose it’s necessary to form a loose brotherhood on the road. Even cyclists who don’t like one another look out for each other.
Wilee—as one would expect from a dude nicknamed “The Coyote Man”—is the craziest of the messengers. A former law student who can’t see himself heading to work every day in a suit, Wilee’s an advocate for fixed speed bikes, simple machines that have no gears and no brakes. That detail is what gives Premium Rush much of its sense of energy. You’re told that Wilee can’t stop, and he hardly ever does. It also makes him hard prey for Det. Monday, who isn’t above using excessive force to get what he wants. There isn’t a whole lot to Premium Rush—a full-blown love triangle between Wilee, Vanessa, and Manny would only slow things down—so much of the work in distinguishing this film from a dozen other chase movies comes down to Michael Shannon’s work as Detective Monday. Koepp and co-writer John Kamps make a good decision in keeping Monday mostly buffoonish, with his occasional violent outbursts (he kills a Chinese gangster after being beaten with a phone book) constantly undermined by moments of weakness, like when his bluff is easily called by an immigrant student (Jamie Chung) for flashing the wrong badge.
In the A.V. Club review of Premium Rush, Scott Tobias draws a comparison to Chuck Jones’ Roadrunner cartoons, which is especially tempting given Wilee’s name. Roger Ebert makes the same comparison, but I think a different Looney Tunes chase dynamic is more fitting, that being the one between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The Coyote was nothing if not a relentless schemer, but nothing Monday does is of his own volition. He’s a relentless hunter, a man with a gun and a license to use it, an idiot who is easily frustrated when the hero dives into a waiting rabbit hole, but who happens to be immeasurably lucky. Unlike Fudd, who wept something fierce the one time he actually killed the wabbit, Monday is a man with no soul, a force of nature who doesn’t care if a few bike messengers end up greasespots on the pavement. Add the presence of his equally-witless bike cop bloodhound (Christopher Place), and its a lock.
Where Looney Tunes took the basic framework of a chase and added absurdism and prodigious artistry, Premium Rush is content to be a quick, charming joyride. It’s breathless, sure, but it isn’t exactly heavy material. That’s fine, especially given how dark most of the summer’s big action movies have been. Sometimes you want to watch the world burn. At other times, it’s fine just watching an anvil fall on someone’s head.
Premium Rush. Directed by David Koepp. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Wilee), Michael Shannon (Det. Bobby Monday), Dania Ramirez (Vanessa), Wolé Parks (Manny), Jamie Chung (Nima), Christopher Place (Bike Cop), and Asif Mandvi (Raj). Released August 24, 2012, by Columbia Pictures.