Premium Rush (2012) is the best kind of summer movie. It’s slight, direct and completely inconsequential, but unlike too many other summer movies, it’s willing to admit it. It’s bright, fun, a little stylistic, but best of all, it works on you without insulting your intelligence, allowing you to just sit there and let it happen. It exists in a world we recognize not as a fantasy place pitched on the edge of the apocalypse, it has a hero we can identify with who doesn’t wear a cape, and it has a villain we can hate. Oh, it’s as ludicrous as any comic book movie and its plot and characters are riddled with clichés but it’s executed well and delivered at a breakneck pace. It even has a Wilhelm scream in it.
Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a New York bicycle messenger which requires as much gumption as a superhero to begin with, but Wilee forgoes brakes on his bike, believing that they cause more accidents than they solve. He doesn’t provide a lot of evidence for this theory but he adheres to it totally. He knows the city, he can move in and out of pedestrians and traffic with ease, and he can get you a package from Morningside Heights to Chinatown in no time. I’ve run in Manhattan, which can feel like playing football on an obstacle course; doing the same on a bike with no brakes sounds like suicide and many of Wilee’s coworkers tell him so. But Wilee is blessed with exceptional skills at identifying available courses and deciphering which one is safe, or safest anyway.
Wilee is an adrenaline seeker. We find out that he’s a law school graduate but is putting off taking the bar. He loves to ride. Those around him take on this dangerous and non-lucrative task to pay for the means of better opportunities. Wilee’s girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) has been biking her way through school and eagerly anticipates her future behind a desk. More than cars and buses, it’s that future that Wilee is most intently biking away from.He receives an envelope that needs to be taken downtown. No sweat, but then a cop named Monday (Michael Shannon) comes around for it. When Wilee refuses to give up his charge, he gets on his bike and heads off with Monday in pursuit. The envelope holds a ticket worth $50,000 that the crooked Monday wants so he can get square with the gangsters he owes gambling losses to. This initial chase draws to Wilee the attention of another cop (Christopher Place), who just as doggedly pursues him. In the span of the ensuing hours the envelope will change more hands, leading to a furious race between Wilee and his professional rival, the cocky Manny (Wolé Parks), who speaks only in the third person (“Manny can’t hear you. Manny’s moving too fast.”). We learn the nature of the ticket in the envelope, but more than that we get bicycle chases, one after another.This would seem monotonous if not for the varying scenarios that the city of New York and Premium Rush’s director David Koepp sets up for us. We get chases through the streets, through the park, through parking garages. The chases give some of the feeling of actually racing on a bicycle, and they appeal directly to the human desire of wanting to see the pursued elude the pursuer.
The movie is pretty dumb (if you can’t tell by the end that the movie is making Wilee’s lack of brakes a metaphor for the way he lives his life, it might be back to school for you), but it’s fun and the people involved seem to want to have nothing else. I liked the supernaturally bumptious Manny and the smart-mouthed Raj (Aasif Mandvi), the dispatcher of the messengers. But no one is having more fun than Shannon, who has a blast as the corrupt cop in over his head. He’s the best part of the movie, maniacally trying to keep up with Wilee and stay one step ahead of the gangsters that await his payment and the rest of the force who are unearthing his crookedness. The man is so addicted to gambling that it’s amazing the police psychiatrists let him on the team (even Monday is amazed by it); his driving compulsions don’t live very deep under the surface. He isn’t too well-served by the script which gives him lines that haven’t been uttered by a flustered cop since The Dukes of Hazzard was canceled, but Shannon is able to exclaim the standard frustrations as Wilee gives him the slip with an ounce of credibility but still with a wink at the audience.
It seems clear, though the movie doesn’t comment on this, that Monday and Wilee are two sides of the same coin. What is a gambling addiction if not a desire to live on the edge, which is the same desire Wilee lives his life by? Koepp is known mainly for his screenplays (Jurassic Park , Spider-Man ) that vary wildly in story but have a knack for cutting to the chase (the exceptions being the over-complicated scripts for Mission: Impossible  and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ). Premium Rush is all chase and that’s just fine. Told with energy and verve, Premium Rush doesn’t want to do anything but deliver the goods as quickly as possible, and it does.