You'd be hard pressed to find many people in New York, or any other major city, who profess to being a fan of the bike messenger. They zip around town like hipster meteors, all narrow misses and a smug sense of entitlement that only makes their dangerous weaving all the more frustrating. So it's a bold endeavor, perhaps, to make a movie that features bike messengers as the cool-kid heroes, but that is what director and co-writer (with John Kamps) David Koepp has done with Premium Rush, a surprisingly agile little thriller that almosts endears us to the real-life scourges of the streets. To be fair, the 1986 Kevin Bacon feature Quicksilver covered this territory before, but that was twenty-six long years ago. Premium Rush is the zippy, techno-savvy bike messenger movie for millenials. This ain't your granddady's bike messenger movie, basically.
The film concerns Wilee, a fixie-riding daredevil star of the industry, played with lean muscle by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, with his sensitive swagger and urban-crunchy intelligence is a perfect fit for the role. (Had this film been done with, say, Chris Evans, the whole enterprise would have been sunk.) Save for one or two scenes, the entirety of the movie concerns one wacky afternoon in which Wilee picks up a mysterious envelope that puts him in the sights of a crooked cop who wants whatever is in that envelope and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it. The stakes are at times life-and-death, but the film maintains its airy, summery tone fairly consistently, mostly by poking fun at the goofy premise and wisely not standing still for too long. As the corrupt cop, perfectly named Bobby Monday, the great, lurching Michael Shannon turns in a delightfully odd, nuanced performance. It turns out Shannon is a pretty nimble comedian, someone who can tease the material without really mocking it, and without letting go of his deeper, more serious actor instincts. Monday is sinister but silly, a sad-sack gambler weary with debt, and a blustering "I'm a cop!"-shrieking little man with a gun. He's funny, but he's pretty creepy too, a delicate but heady mix that Shannon calibrates perfectly. Odd to say but true nonetheless: There's some really good acting in Premium Rush.
Monday's motivations and the contents of the envelope are revealed through loop backs in the film's timeline that show events that occurred just before or during scenes we've already seen. We see Wilee pick up the envelope and the pursuit begin, and then a bit later in the film the clock rewinds — quite literally, a clock on the screen flips back — to the minutes leading up to Wilee's arrival, or to what happened just after he pedaled away. It's a nifty little technique, one that feels at times almost like De Palma realtime, even though the chronology is strategically stretched out or condensed at various points. The basic bones of the story concern Nima (Jamie Chung, dainty but grounded), the roommate of Wilee's girlfriend (an appealing Dania Ramirez) and the source of the envelope in question. The story zooms us up and down Manhattan's skinny sprawl, from the leafy heights of Columbia to cluttered, clustered Chinatown. New York is used beautifully here, even if the film's geography doesn't always stand up to close examination. (Why, when heading downtown from Columbia, would one suddenly be pedaling furiously under the elevated tracks in Harlem?) And all that bicycling is filmed with a charming brio, especially the scenes in which time freezes and Wilee plots a course through an intersection, accident scenarios playing out with satisfying crunch until he finds the correct path. It's all a lot of fun, this bike messenger stuff.
Koepp blessedly doesn't spend too much time trying to elevate the bike courier life from merely a profession to that of a lifestyle and philosophy, the way these kinds of movies often do. (Think other films in the niche profession genre, like Coyote Ugly or even Top Gun.) But there is a bike messenger bar, and there is a rival messenger with whom Wilee must, of course, at some point race. I'm not sure I quite believe that the courier world is quite so thorough a microcosm, but for the purposes of this giddy little film, one that tingles with genuine wit and elan, I don't mind the convention. This isn't to say that I'll be more understanding the next time a bike messenger nearly clips my arm off while I'm crossing the street. But Premium Rush at least makes me think I might watch after him as he speeds by, wondering where he might be off to in such a hurry.