Premium Rush is one of those movies that finds a fresh and catchy vehicular gimmick on which to hang its high-velocity thrills. Ben-Hur staged a chariot race as Biblical demolition derby, Speed got virtuoso mileage out of a runaway bus, and now director David Koepp has come up with the novel notion of setting an all-too-standard underworld potboiler among the bad-boy community of New York City bike messengers. As anyone who lives in New York (or has even visited for a day) knows well, bike messengers are those low-tech daredevils in brightly colored spandex whose job it is to zip through the gnarled clusters of Manhattan traffic at often irresponsible speeds. That's what's annoying about them, but also funny and halfway admirable: A certain recklessness is built right into their job description. (If they were any less swift, then they wouldn't be of much value.)
The hero of Premium Rush is, of course, a messenger who is faster, cockier, and more fearless than anyone else. His name is Wilee (pronounced ''Wylie'' yes, it's a reference to Wile E. Coyote). He's played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a fast-break energy and dash that shows off just how much the actor is enjoying evolving into a movie star. Of all the requirements of stardom, one of them is surely that if you're going to take on a role like this, you need to radiate a sense of down-and-dirty fun. Gordon-Levitt does. The movie is basically Top Gun on bike wheels, and Wilee is the Maverick character, the rebel who rides a stripped-down cycle that's equipped with no gears and no brakes (''Brakes are death'' is his breathless motto). He's also a law-school graduate who prides himself on not having an office job, on staying outside the system.
Koepp shoots the zipping-through-traffic scenes with a sharply angled excitement, keeping the camera low to the ground, Mad Max-style, and always letting you know where every car and crosswalk is. The precision of his staging is what gives the action its kick. (In a rare case of spatial fidelity, the film even respects the geography of Manhattan.) The plot, however, is just a rote high-speed MacGuffin. Wilee heads up to the campus of Columbia University, where his ex-girlfriend's roommate (Jamie Chung) hands him a mysterious ticket sealed inside a small white envelope. He has to deliver it to an address all the way down in Chinatown.
Before he can begin his ride, though, he's accosted by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a thuggish, plain-clothes NYPD officer who demands that Wilee hand the ticket over. Wilee isn't about to do that (it would be a violation of policy), but Bobby, it's clear, will stop at nothing to get the ticket. Wilee manages to shake him and leap onto his bike, zipping over to Broadway for the long ride downtown, while Bobby jumps into his car and is soon in hot pursuit. He will spend the entire movie trying to get that ticket, but Premium Rush (the title is bike-messenger code for a high-priority assignment) is cleverly structured so that the plot feels more complicated than it is. The movie weaves together chase scenes, flashbacks (Bobby is a degenerate gambler), and little excursions into the exotic back-room world of Hawala, an underground system of Chinese money transfer that accounts for why that ticket is such a hot property.
Gordon-Levitt, his dark hair shaved short, his eyes narrowed as he peers 10 blocks ahead while churning those bike pedals up and down, plays Wilee with a convincingly eager and jockish nonchalance. When he rides head-on into a clogged intersection, he rapidly runs through every possible scenario, each of which hinge on the direction he might turn his bike, and Koepp slows the action way, way down (sort of like the fight scenes in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films), so that we can see each one. Gordon-Levitt did a lot of his own racing (the closing credits feature an outtake of the actor bloodied after slamming into a car's windshield), but the stunt double work has been seamlessly blended in, creating an illusion of endless mastery and quickness.
The other spark plug in Premium Rush is Michael Shannon's performance: He makes Bobby a hilariously angry and over-the-top sociopath, but with an animal intelligence that you can't totally laugh off. He's like a dysfunctional human Terminator; even when he's stymied, he won't stop frothing and raging. Premium Rush earns its place as end-of-the-summer escapism, but I can't say that it's more than a well-done formula flick. At this point, it's just one more movie-as-ride. But this one, at least, lives up to its title. B