Bike-courier movie delivers thrilling rush

08/23/2012 5:00 AM

08/23/2012 3:03 PM

Michael Shannon plays a villain with “impulse-control issues” in the bike-courier thriller “Premium Rush.” Shannon fans will salivate at the thought of that. Nobody can turn on the “impulse-control” scary like he can.

That means Shannon’s performance is as amped-up and all-out as the burn-rubber young cyclists who hurtle through Manhattan’s crowded canyon-streets in this breathless chase picture.

Shannon, an Oscar nominee for “Revolutionary Road” and a vision of madness in “Take Shelter,” goes crazy-eyed here. He spits. He rants — about his various personal problems, about profanity in “family” viewing time on TV, and about this kid (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who won’t give up the package he has to take from way uptown to way down in Chinatown.

Levitt is Wilee, as in “Wile E. Coyote,” a veteran courier who narrates that “I can’t work in an office.” We later learn he went to law school. But where’s the rush in that? He’d rather fly through New York City on a fixed-gear/no brakes bike that he has utterly mastered. He dodges taxis, flees traffic cops and anticipates which weave will take him onto the hood of a car, into a door that a taxi passenger has just opened or by a mother pushing a baby carriage.

Acclaimed screenwriter and sometimes writer-director David Koepp (“The Trigger Effect”) lets us see Wilee work that equation out, in slow-motion, like Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes.

Wiley loves “running reds, killing peds” (pedestrians). He adores the freedom of his $80-a-day (“if you’re lucky”) job. He’s warm for fellow courier Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), a poem in sweat and sinew. And he can’t stand the muscular Manny (Wole Parks, very funny), who rides a pricey road bike and refers to himself in the third person, except when he’s talking about his cyclist’s physique.

All is almost right with Wilee’s Manhattan-on-$1,200-2,000-a-month lifestyle until he takes that one envelope, handed to him by a panicked Chinese college student on the upper West Side. It’s 5:33. This MUST be delivered to Sister Chen in Chinatown by 7. And that is when Wilee runs afoul of a cop, Mr. Impulse Control Issues, who bellows “delinquent scum” at one and all as he pursues this punk down the island of Manhattan.

Koepp, who scripted “Jurassic Park” and an “Indiana Jones” back in the day, tells the story in flashbacks within flashbacks. We meet Wilee as he has an accident. We go back to how this all began, then skip around to fill in chunks of back story. That doesn’t quite cover the film’s loss of momentum as Wilee tries to summon the cops, or failing that, ditch the envelope.

But Koepp, who co-wrote this with his “Zathura” and “Ghost Town” writing partner, John Kamps, has fun with this. His always-moving camera chases the cyclists in a camera car as they plot, scheme and carry on phone conversations while they pedal and pedal and pedal. He turns Shannon loose, having the character give out a fake name borrowed from a 1950s B-movie horror screenwriter, “Forrest J. Ackerman.”

The cycling stuff is so sensational that you can’t trust it. True, that’s Gordon-Levitt in a lot of shots, especially the ones where he’s shouting into his Bluetooth at Vanessa on her Bluetooth. We also spot the occasional stunt man. Yes, it’s great that this isn’t all digital trickery.

But the near-collisions with cars, trucks, other bikes, etc., feel like composites — a cyclist filmed on a street, the traffic filmed in a separate shot. Well-done composites, but more surreal than real.

Gordon-Levitt is about the same age Kevin Bacon was when he played a nearly over-the-hill bike messenger in “Quicksilver,” and he makes the most of this guy — suicidally fearless (“No gears, no brakes,” no glory) and wily enough to call for help when this scary Forrest J. Ackerman comes after him.

He and Shannon give the film its pop, its charisma. Supporting players Ramirez, Parks and Aasif Mandvi — as Raj, the couriers’ sassy, inappropriate boss — add flavor. And Koepp, old pro that he is, keeps the clock ticking on this lightweight, two-wheeled ticking-clock thriller, a pleasant rush that shows up in a part of the summer when such sensations are at a premium.

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