Brakes are death. This is one of the mantras of Wilee, the kinetic bike messenger played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, that encapsulates his philosophy when it comes to cycling, and to life itself. Much like the movie, he never slows down his exhilarating pace when he’s on his bicycle, preferring to take the risk of cutting between two speeding cabs rather than to stop and wait for the traffic light to turn green. For him, to stop would be to surrender to the stagnation of immobility and stasis, and this guiding principle has led him to become one of the best messengers in the entire city. But because of one mysterious envelope that he is tasked to deliver one day, to stop would also mean to lose a chase where his life is potentially on the line.
This satisfying action thriller races through the streets of New York City as it follows Wilee on his mission to drop this MacGuffin to its intended back-alley destination. Hot on his tracks is Detective Monday, a disturbed officer with a gambling addiction and money problems hell-bent on acquiring Wilee’s valuable load, played by Michael Shannon. Director David Koepp turns New York into an urban labyrinthe, where the dizzying streets plays host to their well-choreographed cat-and-mouse pursuit. Through an interesting visual device where Koepp lays out the map of the city to illustrate Wilee’s ever-changing routes, he reminds us of how we are slowly changing our understanding of urban landscapes as we begin to view and conceptualize them digitally through the lens of Google Maps and other technological cartographies.
The nature of the package in question is skillfully unwrapped through a series of flashbacks and chronological leaps in the narrative. In trying to figure out what the parcel really is, Wilee and Det. Monday are taken on a crash course with the Chinese mafia. Surprisingly, a seemingly cookie-cutter story about Chinese immigrants is able to sustain enough intrigue to last a movie, but it is mostly thanks to the performances of Levitt and Shannon. Levitt gives his character a vitality and energy that counterbalances the psychological darkness of Shannon, a typical trait among his roles. In some ways, these are characters that both actors are familiar with and they can sometimes feel a little too unoriginal, but for the purposes of an undemanding end-of-summer movie, it doesn’t detract from the film’s overall entertainment value. What further makes this taut screenplay impressive is the way it builds and uses the relationships Wilee has with his girlfriend Vanessa (Danna Ramirez), who is also a bike messenger, and his main cycling rival Manny (Wole Parks) as they too get embroiled in his messy, nightmarish predicament. For Wilee, the stakes become personal as well.
There are times when one may get desensitized to the bursts of speed that never seem to end, but there is a pleasure to be derived in seeing these messengers gamble with death as they zip through the city avoiding different kinds of obstacles that come in all shapes and sizes littered throughout the streets of New York. If anything, this movie is a public service to bikers of all stripes, as it shows how dickish other vehicles and pedestrians treat them. But at the same time, some of your worst stereotypes about them are confirmed as they treat the city like a playground, without adhering to any set of rules. This movie has the strange effect of making you, in turns, sympathetic and loathsome of bikers. But in any case, it is one enjoyable ride.