By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Premium Rush is a nice late-summer surprise, considering that the number of good movies about speeding bicycles can be counted on two wheels — and neither was Quicksilver, which this movie most resembles.
Rather than the open-road competition of Breaking Away and American Flyers, Premium Rush barrels through crowded Manhattan streets and sidewalks. We get handlebar-eye views of incessant obstacles faced by bike couriers, rogue riders delivering mail on a tight, ticking clock. It's a dangerous job and these Gen Y daredevils love doing it.
None more than one calling himself Wilee (like the coyote, we're told), a law school dropout believing "brakes are death," who also removed his gears for good measure. Wilee is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an aggressively Zen rider, able to instantly evaluate his options of split-second swerves to avoid disaster. Part of the movie's cringing fun is how director David Koepp shows the calamity Wilee foresees and it isn't pretty.
Wilee never saw this coming. What seemed to be a normal pickup and delivery has escalated into a death chase across the city, with a crazed, corrupt cop on his tail. I'm talking full-blown Dennis Hopper in Speed crazy. Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, Boardwalk Empire) can convey that simply by showing his face, which always seems primed for an alien to pop out of it. Shannon is all giddy evil from the get-go.
Why the cop is pursuing Wilee is fairly simple yet Keopp and co-writer John Kamps explain it with brisk flashbacks at key moments. Premium Rush elliptically proceeds close to real-time — delivery in 90 minutes or less — but it's the hours and weeks preceding that window that matter. Like Speed, this is a tightly constructed crisis solved only by velocity, and seldom caught spinning its wheels.
There's a romantic interest for Wilee, of course, another courier named Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and the third wheel for her affections Manny (Wolé Parks). Standard stuff that's minor distraction until the chips are down, when Vanessa picks up the chase and Manny goads Wilee into a breakneck race through Central Park.
Every second we're aware of what a logistics nightmare this production must have been, closing and controlling blocks of Manhattan for hours at a time, and this movie covers much of the island. Children shouldn't try these reckless maneuvers at home, nor those circus-spandex Tour de France wannabes on weekends.
Gordon-Levitt remains one of our most interesting young actors, this time giving off a vaguely Steve McQueen vibe. It's a smart counterpoint to Shannon's gonzo villainy that proves a hammy performance can work under properly over-the-top circumstances. Working in tandem they make Premium Rush a movie that's off the chain, as the kids say.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.