Premium Rush may be my favorite New York movie since Raimi’s Spider-Man. David Koepp’s story of a daredevil bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who finds himself pursued by a crooked cop while running a package from Columbia to Chinatown is a breakneck ground-level tour of Manhattan, with a tremendous sense of place and immaculate attention to geography. Filmed with a restless, roving camera on live city streets (Gordon-Levitt landed in the hospital after crashing through a taxicab’s windshield), the movie gets the city’s daytime fervor uncannily right: the litter, the unruly drivers, the pedestrians frantically hailing cabs, the trash-filled back alleys that take sudden turns and meet dead ends. In the midst of all that, Koepp films long, breathtaking two-wheeled chase scenes, seamlessly blending his actors with their stunt rider doubles as they dodge and weave their way through rush hour traffic. It’s a tremendous technical achievement.
Though his directorial efforts tend to be smaller in scale, as a screenwriter Koepp’s had his hand in seemingly every tentpole franchise since the 90s. An old hand at delivering flawlessly-paced thrills to huge audiences, Koepp has a clever idea here: a mainstream action film steeped in the peculiar, often unfriendly culture of bike messengers, who are an oddball combination of tough-guy aggressiveness and hipster cool. Premium Rush doesn’t delve too deeply into that world, but it gives us the flavor: the protagonist, Willee (think “Coyote”), rides a “fixie” — a bike that can’t coast and has no brakes — and looks down on spandex-clad cyclist types who use gears; messengers compete ruthlessly for jobs and prestige, but look out for each other when things get rough; and all unite in their sense of superiority (and sometimes hostility) toward drivers, pedestrians, and cops. Gordon-Levitt slides effortlessly into this world with an unshowy, credible performance, and Koepp, a 5o year-old Hollywood millionaire, is almost adorably enamored of it. All this helps Premium Rush feel specific and lived-in.
But the film deflates whenever it feels the need to tend to its plot, which is a creaky thing involving a degenerate gambler villain (Michael Shannon) and the Hawala monetary system. Koepp structures his screenplay to stop and retrace its steps to tell the backstory of the macguffin Willee is carrying, and — despite a valiant effort by a manic, hilarious Shannon — it’s kind of boring. “Brakes are death,” Willee keeps repeating, and I wished Koepp had taken those words to heart.
— Eugene Novikov