Premium Rush is that rare bird: a chase picture that’s just a chase picture — and a dandy one. There’s little in the way of fancy subtexts or allegorical overtones, and no shocking final twist in which, say, the kidnapped damsel turns out to be a homicidal maniac. (There is no kidnapped damsel.) The package needing delivery by the bicycle messenger protagonist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a generic MacGuffin (“Don’t screw up,” calls the dispatcher. “It’s premium rush!”); and the bad guy trying to take it from him, a cop (Michael Shannon) with a frightful gambling problem, represents no faction or entity larger than himself. Inevitably there are characters other than the chaser and the one being chased, but there hardly need to be. Manhattan has enough pedestrians, drivers, and other bicyclists to fill the screen for a fast 90 minutes.
Gordon-Levitt’s Wilee does have a life philosophy, but it’s nothing terribly complex. “Can’t work in an office,” he says in voice-over while evading numerous, potentially deadly obstacles. “Can’t stop … Don’t want to either … When I see a guy in a gray business suit … my balls shrivel up.” Zooming through red lights and teeming crosswalks, he is exactly the kind of biker to whom we yell, “We have a walk sign, asshole!” But being as we’re seeing the world through his eyes, we think, “Out of the way, assholes!” I must say that this cuts to the heart of New Yorkers’ moral relativism: On bikes, they think, “Asshole pedestrians!” and “Asshole drivers!” In cars, they think, “Asshole pedestrians!” and “Asshole bikers!” On foot, they think, “Asshole bikers!” and “Asshole drivers!” (Wherever they are, of course, they think, “Asshole critics!”)
Director and co-screenwriter David Koepp understands that chase thrillers and farces are sibling-close, and he deftly orchestrates roundelay in and around a precinct house featuring Wilee, Bobby Monday (Shannon), and a pissed-off bicycle cop. There’s a wizardly CGI gimmick that tops the one in those lousy Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes pictures: Our hero, forced to make split-second decisions at busy crosswalks, calculates the outcome of various routes, most of which are lethal and end in the hellish mangling of either Wilee or a random bystander. In addition to evoking the cyberlike workings of the modern young brain, the device gives new meaning to the phrase, “The road not taken.”
To deliver his package, Wilee needs to get from 116th Street to Doyers, the adorable curvy lane in Chinatown that is here home to both restaurants and Chinese gambling dens. To make certain we have our larger geographical bearings, Koepp regularly cuts to a grid of Manhattan on which a fat white line displays Wilee’s trajectory. To make certain we have our larger narrative bearings, Koepp uses an onscreen digital clock when flashing back to earlier in the very bad day of Bobby Monday. Good as Gordon-Levitt is (there’s no fat on him — or his acting), it’s Shannon who earns most of our sympathy. His Monday is so very lumbering and hapless. His face is ravaged, his eyes bug out, and when he thinks he has the upper hand he emits a girlish “Hee-hee!” that inevitably transforms into a howl of pain. Shannon is a great stage actor (his plaintive Astrov in the Soho Rep Uncle Vanya is the finest I’ve ever seen), and his performance here is stylized to the point of being cartoonlike — but without a trace of camp. Seeing his Astrov and his Monday back to back, I can’t help putting them together and imagining something really, really big — the best Macbeth of his generation?