Few things are more elemental to film than chase scenes. It doesn't matter if it's on foot, in cars, through subway trains, or on horses, a chase is an inherently exciting event that movies can capture better than any other medium. David Koepp's Premium Rush is an exhilarating chase.
The picture stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, a street-smart law-school dropout with an unhealthy fondness for adrenaline-fueled thrills. He makes his living as a messenger, dodging Manhattan traffic on his brakeless bike -- he doesn't believe in stopping -- in order to get packages from here to there. When an acquaintance who works at his old school uptown calls to have him deliver an envelope to Chinatown, it seems like just another priority delivery -- or a "premium rush" as they call it in the bike-messenger biz. However, Detective Monday, a violent cop with pronounced impulse-control problems (played by a deliriously over-the-top Michael Shannon), will do anything to get his hands on Wilee's cargo.
This may sound sarcastic, but the best thing about Premium Rush is its brevity. Clocking in at barely 85 minutes (not counting closing credits), it's an unapologetically straightforward B-movie full of fun, laughs, and some first-rate action editing. The screenplay, co-written by Koepp and John Kamps, jumbles up the narrative, cutting back and forth throughout the day so that we learn why Chinese gangsters, Big Apple bike police, and Wilee's almost girlfriend -- who's also a bike messenger -- are chasing after either the envelope, Wilee, or the scary Detective Monday.
Shannon, who has an undeniable knack for playing people with mental illnesses, brings to mind such gonzo performances as Gary Oldman in The Professional or Eric Roberts in The Pope of Greenwich Village. He's an unhinged and lethal madman who would be scarier if he weren't so funny. In other words, he's the perfect B-movie bad guy.
The whole cast are rock solid. Gordon-Levitt makes Wilee's remarkable biking skills just as plausible as his mental facilities: He can outrace or outthink anybody. And the screenplay actually adds just enough dimensions to the supporting characters so that they register as something more than stereotypes -- but without once slowing down the action.
Premium Rush is not Crank 3. It's far from a boundary-pushing, outrageous spectacle, but it's a top-notch action picture that proves that crafting a memorable chase involving characters we like -- a tradition that goes back to silent film -- still makes for a fun time at the movies.