Movie review: In 'Premium Rush,' bicycle messengers duel over a mystery package

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When riders saddle up on their bikes, "Premium Rush" delivers a shot of adrenaline. When the action pauses, as it must, the story isn't quite as compelling.

"Premium Rush" stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a New York bike messenger who went to law school but never took the bar exam. Instead, his character, Wilee (sounds like Wile E. Coyote), spends his days zipping along on a bike known as a "fixie" because it has only one fixed gear and no brakes.

He flies through the streets and, as the story opens, through the air in a movie that takes place in a single day and tinkers with the time element. It opens at 6:33 p.m. and then spins back to 5 p.m. and weaves in and out of the afternoon, slowly revealing what Wilee is carrying and why a sadistic stranger (Michael Shannon) grows ever more desperate to take it.

'Premium Rush'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon.
  • Rating: PG-13 for some violence, intense action sequences and language.

Wilee had made the pickup from a young Asian woman, Nima (Jamie Chung), at a local college; she happens to be the roommate of Wilee's former girlfriend, fellow bike messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). It's a slender envelope, not big enough for wads of cash or a gun or bricks of drugs.

"It's extremely important," Nima tells Wilee, who responds, "It always is."

The best bicycle messenger in the city not only has Mr. Shannon's character on his tail but a New York bike policeman. For good measure, he finds himself in a race against time and a cocky fellow messenger, Manny (Wole Parks), who looks like an Olympian and has designs on Vanessa.

It turns out the price of delivering or losing the envelope is far greater than Wilee could have imagined at the start.

Director and co-writer David Koepp relied on four men, in addition to Mr. Gordon-Levitt, to play Wilee although you never notice who's grabbing the handlebars. The actor, who says he did his "share of riding fast, riding in traffic," ceded the craziest stunts to a messenger who may be the fastest in Manhattan, a Hollywood stunt man accustomed to being hit by cars and a couple of experts at doing tricks on the sorts of bikes Wilee rides through New York.

A clever conceit is watching Wilee envision what would happen if he lurches left or rides to the right or carves a path directly ahead, perhaps through or against traffic. In what's called "Bike Vision," Mr. Koepp dramatizes Wilee's split-second thought process that allows him to imagine outcomes before plowing ahead.

The back story of the delivery gives the movie some heft. Otherwise, it's just handsome young people who ride as though they had a death wish and who cycle into a story with more than its share of coincidences.

Mr. Shannon delivers his famous intensity here while Mr. Gordon-Levitt proves, again, that he is an accomplished, versatile actor who can play a policeman opposite Batman in "The Dark Knight Rises" or a Seattle man with a rare cancerous tumor in "50/50."

"Premium Rush" won't race to the top of summer best-of lists, but it won't languish near the bottom, either. It's a look at a slice of society that is often ignored or deplored but can close ranks when outsiders threaten it or the sanctity of its high-speed work.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: First Published August 24, 2012 4:00 AM


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