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Dodging Manhattan traffic has never been a sport for the fainthearted. Weaving through traffic as a bicycle messenger on a single-gear bike with no brakes is the sign of someone with a death wish or, as Premium Rush would have it, the symbol of the new urban hero/outlaw. Essentially a chase movie, Premium Rush is heavier on action than it is on plot, which is a shame since it’s directed and co-written by David Koepp, the esteemed screenwriter turned occasional writer/director, whose early career is notable for, among other things, his tangled, complex scenarios for such films as Carlito’s Way, Snake Eyes, and Mission: Impossible.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee (as in Coyote), the movie’s daredevil protagonist. A law school dropout, Wilee loves the freedom and adrenaline rush of pedaling nonstop across the city. We know this because he tells us so in a voiceover monologue. To make up for this character’s wind-to-his-back dramatic arc, Premium Rush has cast Michael Shannon as the film’s heavy: the unhinged and volatile detective, Bobby Monday. Unhinged is a characteristic that has become synonymous with Shannon’s burgeoning film career (see Take Shelter, Revolutionary Road, and Boardwalk Empire for a few more popular examples). Shannon is required to do all the dramatic heavy lifting here, so the actor can be forgiven if he seems to go a bit overboard in terms of the character’s mania. The secret of what Wilee is carrying in his messenger bag is stretched out, but it nevertheless seems unlikely that a courier would risk life and limb to protect its contents.
The riding is fun to watch for a while but it will soon seem repetitive to all but the most serious bicycle gearheads. The camerawork is largely naturalistic, with computer touches added to simulate overhead map views and strategic calculations that look very much like sports graphics that use superimposed arrows to elucidate a player’s drive to the basket or path through a defensive line. Yet the action is neither cathartic nor supremely exhilarating. Bullitt on a bike this film is not.