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Review: 'Premium Rush' delivers action, no bells and whistles

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
updated 12:09 PM EDT, Fri August 24, 2012
Joseph Gordon-Levitt races through the streets of Manhattan as Wilee in
Joseph Gordon-Levitt races through the streets of Manhattan as Wilee in "Premium Rush."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Premium Rush" is centered around a group of New York bike messengers
  • Joseph Gordon-Levit's character, Wilee, appears to have a bit of a death wish
  • There is also a romantic subplot involving Wilee and another of the bikers

Editor's note: This review may contain spoilers.

(CNN) -- For some reason, moviemakers haven't been falling over themselves to glorify the exciting and heroic lives of bike messengers -- which at least leaves director David Koepp with a clear field.

And if it's a two-wheeled, pedal-powered adrenaline charge you're after, this is definitely the movie to watch. Yes, the plot is contrived and stretched much too thin. Yes, the characters are strictly off the peg. And yes, this flick is essentially a one-trick pony.

But at least it's something different. "Premium Rush" is loaded with on-road action, scarcely pausing for breath as courier Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) criss-crosses Manhattan on his austere steel-frame, fixed-gear, no-brakes bone-rattler.

Wilee takes his handle from the Coyote, but he's got more in common with Road Runner, zipping through the city's canyons, slaloming around cabs and pedestrians, oblivious to red lights and traffic regulations. Gordon-Levitt's an attractive and engaging actor, but motorists may find it challenging to overlook this guy's reckless and self-centered road sense, which is dressed up here as your typical Zen-existential-death-wish trip.

The Coyote role -- one Robert Monday -- falls to Hollywood's current go-to crazy, Michael Shannon ("Take Shelter," "Boardwalk Empire"), who sucks up all the juiciest dialogue as a guy with impulse control issues. He's after an envelope that Wilee is delivering downtown -- it really doesn't matter why -- and he's not going to take no for an answer. Frankly, I'd have liked to have spent more time with this unhinged brother to the "Bad Lieutenant." I mean, who didn't wish the Coyote got his bird just once?

Koepp, who also wrote the screenplay with John Kamps, ramps up the velocity with low camera angles, speeded-up photography and a rag-bag of digital add-ons. Wilee plots intersections with a kind of mental Streetview, calculating potential wipeouts and collisions like Sherlock Holmes armed with a GPS.

This souped-up visual gimmickry is eye-catching but as empty and artificial as Koepp's story, which skates over several glaring coincidences and absurdities on what must be the unluckiest day in Wilee's life. It doesn't have to be "Bicycle Thieves," but a more nuts and bolts approach to physical reality wouldn't have hurt: fewer impossible jumps, more hard landings.

I can readily believe that a cyclist could stay a step ahead of a car on Manhattan's crowded streets -- just as well, as the movie is essentially a series of long chase scenes stuck end to end - but a modicum of consistency would be nice. One minute, Wilee is racing hell for leather to evade a bike cop; the next, he's parking outside a police station to report the bug-eyed motorist trying to turn him into roadkill.

Probably to satisfy the moneymen, and maybe to spin out his slim 75-minute story to an hour and a half, Koepp also throws in a romantic subplot. It's an unnecessary distraction from the business at hand. Koepp shifts backward and forward in time when it suits him, but altogether too much of the romantic sparring takes place on the hands-free as Wilee and Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) hurtle in different directions. Trust me: That heavy breathing you hear has nothing to do with sex.

An unpretentious throwback to the kind of action movie that had no need of superheroes, "Premium Rush" is hardly a classic but fun up to a point, and it's a B movie for gearheads with no bells and whistles.

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