The more movies I sit through, the more I believe that one of the most difficult acts to pull off in all of cinema is simply being entertaining. So even when you’re stuck with a movie as inherently silly as David Koepp’s Premium Rush, the fact that its sole purpose is to be “exciting” is commendable on its own. The cleverest aspect of Koepp’s film is that he’s taken something innately cinematic, but completely untapped in film — New York City bike messengers darting through Manhattan traffic — and built an action crime thriller around it. Add a stronger cast than it deserves and it’s that simple. Even Koepp’s penchant for cheesy dialogue, and the desperate, cloying attempts at being hip can’t obliterate this.
The film carries a simple storyline that’s gussied up with flashbacks that intertwine with existing plotlines — but this is merely window dressing to make Premium Rush appear more convoluted than it is. Fundamentally, this is just a movie about a fearless bike courier named Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who picks up an envelope that Detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a crooked cop who’s gambled away a lot of money playing — of all things — pai gow, will stop at nothing to get his hands on. Every other bit of action is built around this rudimentary premise, with detours into interpersonal relationships and the backstory behind what’s in the envelope. But the bulk of the film is Wilee trying to escape on his bicycle.
Luckily, the pace moves like lightning, and the movie — like Wilee’s bike — rarely stops moving. In Premium Rush’s favor is Gordon-Levitt, an actor with the innate charm to pull off this kind of junky nonsense. Plus, he’s a got a great villain to play against. In one scene, he chews out Shannon, who finally gets out of his dour arthouse mode and gets to have fun. Shannon’s performance is full of quirks (his character constantly goes by the alias of Forrest J Ackerman of Famous Monsters of Film Land). His character even abides by a strange moral code — he’s not against violence, but is offended by the phrase “suck it” appearing on primetime TV — and he occasionally slips into the downright goofy. While I’ll be in the minority — at least amongst Shannon’s admirers — this is the best he’s been since The Runaways (2010), and he’s the kind bad guy a movie like this needs: over-the-top, but with a certain understated menace.
As much as I enjoyed Premium Rush, the film has its problems. It often strains under its own need to seem cool — something that often wanders into corniness — while Koepp’s few attempts at stylization feel cheap and flimsy. Watching Gordon-Levitt’s stuntman hop his bike around on police cars, for instance, is a bit too wacky, while the climax is hokey even for this movie. And, at the risk of handing out spoilers, so are the film’s romantic leads making out at the end of the movie, paying no attention the dead body that should be lying mere feet from them if the rules of continuity mean anything. But, really, occasionally that’s charm of Premium Rush, and in the end, exactly the type of movie it is — take it or leave it. Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action sequences and language.