Premium Rush is exactly the kind of film that the dog days of August demand: simple and direct, but handled with enough intelligence to earn our respect. Seemingly inspired from iPhone map apps, it turns a bundle of potential clichés into rousing entertainment, bolstered by an upbeat script and another strong turn from star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He plays a Manhattan bicycle messenger: an apparently reviled profession because of their tendency to worsen already hellish traffic with their death-defying antics. For the film to explain what a bunch of pricks these guys are, then induce us to actually root for one over the course of ninety minutes is nothing short of a minor miracle.
The set-up needs no explanation, and indeed the film runs into trouble only when it tries to elaborate on its straightforward Macguffin. Gordon-Levitt’s Wilee (as in “Coyote”) accepts an envelope from an edgy young woman (Jamie Chung) at Columbia University for delivery all the way down in Chinatown. Before he leaves, an even edgier guy named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) approaches him and demands the envelope. No can do, Wilee explains. The lady paid for secure transit and that’s what she’s gonna get. Monday won’t take no for an answer, however, prompting an extended game of Flatten the X-Gamer played out across the streets of Manhattan.
Director David Koepp takes his time explaining the particulars – what lies in the envelope, why Monday wants it, and how Wilee comes to care enough about it to risk his life – but in and of themselves they don’t matter much. They’re plot contrivances of the purest sort, and had Koepp left them as they stand, they might have sunk the whole film with their banality.
Premium Rush, however, isn’t as interested in the levers of manipulation as it is in the ways the characters respond to them. It finds joy in the little details: the sharp dialogue, the crackerjack chases, the constant yellow CG lines covering Wilee’s routes away from (or all too often straight into) danger. Complications arise as predicted, but the directions they take consistently find new ways of surprising us. I dare not reveal the specifics, since much of the film’s pleasure lies in confounding our expectations. But consider one sequence involving a character gambling at an underground club and losing. He asks for more money, which the local bookie grants, then does something so unexpected with it that the nearby bouncers stand jaws agape in disbelief. Premium Rush fills itself with such moments, spawned from run-of-the-mill components but elevated by the skill with which Koepp assembles them.
His two leads give him all the help he could ever need. Gordon-Levitt need only crack that crooked smile of his to earn our sympathies, and his easy-going nature lends an interesting wrinkle to his otherwise straightforward daredevil. Shannon, on the other hand, releases all of that pent-up energy from Boardwalk Empire into a brash, showy tour de force. Monday looks for all the world like that friendly schlub everybody scams drinks off of at the neighborhood bar. Only when he comes in close does he show his teeth… at which point it’s already too late.
Both characters suffer from destructive impulse-control problems, making them fitting mirror images of each other. Wilee has found a socially acceptable outlet for it, but he’s only a few ethical decisions away from where his nemesis stands. Koepp doesn’t overplay that concept; instead it percolates merrily beneath the surface to lend the overt thrills a little texture. That’s the name of the game with a movie like this, and its tight framework never gives us time to contemplate its few legitimate shortcomings. Interesting stories are hard to come by these days, especially those written directly for the screen. That one should arrive in this cinematic dead zone is a truly wonderful surprise.