Call it a cosmic coincidence that prior to my showing of Premium Rush, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, I was treated to a trailer for Looper, also starring Joseph Gordon Levitt. Looper is the film in which Levitt plays a cross between Robert Mitchum and Marty McFly and to do so he has assumed a hardscrabble voice affectation that recalls a protagonist of a black and white noir potboiler of yore……but with time travel. And as I listened to him I thought: “No way Levitt does anything with his voice in a little B-movie thriller like Premium Rush. Right?” Wrong. Lo and behold, Levitt, a consummate, talented professional, manages to go an octave or two lower than he usually does – sort of in the realm of his Detective Blake voice from The Dark Knight Rises – and conjures up a hipster version of John Wayne. The ten speed is his horse – at one point the calvary is literally called in! – and he will do the right thing, by God, even if the right thing causes him an awful lot of trouble.
Levitt is Wiley, a law school grad who hasn’t taken the Bar because he’s someone more suited for the daredevil life of a bicycle courier on the crowded sidewalks and streets of NYC than for the pinstripe suit with the corner office at an antiseptic three-named firm. He is in a relationship, as he must be, with a fellow courier, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), which is delightfully established via bluetooth on their bikes. Oh, and there is a rival courier, Manny, fancying himself a message-delivering Lance Armstrong (“he’s ‘roided up” says Wylie) who scoffs at Wiley’s heedlessness and constantly challenges him to a mano-a-mano race.
But Manny is the least of Wiley’s problems on this day, chronicled by writer/director David Koepp with a bit of Tony Scott-ian frenzy, what with the time stamps, skirting back and forth in time, and occasionally freezing the action to show Wiley mapping out his breakneck routes in his mind. Wiley is quickly called upon to deliver an envelope for a regular client, Nima (Jamie Chung), an envelope that a crooked cop, the perfectly named Bobby Monday (if Monday is the worst day of the week, and it is, then it’s as if Bobby Monday is constantly having to relive Monday over and over) needs most desperately in order to square some serious gambling debts.
Detective Monday is played by Michael Shannon in, believe it or not, one of the year’s best performances, deliciously off-kilter in such a way to suggest that if you just twisted his dial one degree right or left he could be set down in a Marx Brothers comedy and not feel at all out of place. Constantly admonishing the city’s bikers and pedestrians, Shannon evokes someone convinced the low down dirty universe is out to get him and conspiring to prevent his task every step of the way.
Premium Rush does a bang-up job inventing new chase sequences and close calls and near escapes every step of the way so that it always stays fresh and the pace is mostly swift, save for the flashbacks to Nima and her plight and what brought her to request delivery of this envelope. It is necessary for the story but it is hard to deny that the film surrenders its pizazz whenever Levitt or Shannon are off screen.
This movie does not pretend to be anything more than a series of thrills, spills and battered bike helmets and aside from Shannon’s wackadooness there is not much texture here nor much of a character for Levitt to play. Then again, Levitt’s character is his bike. He’s a man with two wheels, no brakes and no gears who just wants to go fast. That he does. So does the film.