There are the seeds of a funny and exciting film buried within Premium Rush.
Instead, director David Koepp has made one long chase movie, with few comic moments and not that much excitement.
Sure, you'll flinch a few times and, perhaps, cringe at moments of impact when bike meets motorized vehicle, sending a human form soaring. Indeed, the film starts with an image of the hero, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), describing a lazy, slo-mo arc as his body flies casually through space before hitting the pavement with a painful thump.
But while Gordon-Levitt and others leave skin on the pavement, no one really seems to have skin in the game. Oh, sure, we're told what's at stake - but the stakes seem not particularly compelling. And so we're left with lots of shots of Gordon-Levitt and his stunt-double zooming through traffic, dodging cars and pedestrians in what is obviously a series of well-choreographed set pieces which, while active, don't really seem all that much like action.
Gordon-Levitt plays the last of the free-wheeling bike messengers, a guy who threw away a law degree from Columbia to spend his days chasing the adrenaline rush of, um, being a bike messenger. Yes, he's the fastest, with his "fixee" - a single-geared two-wheeler with no brakes. Supposedly his purity of approach - and his addiction to adrenaline and to being the best - are meant to count as character attributes.
His last delivery of the day is a "premium rush": a pickup at 116th Street and Broadway that must reach its Chinatown destination in 90 minutes. (If you don't live in Manhattan, well, that's almost from one end of the island to the other, through the heart of Times Square in rush-hour traffic.)
Almost as soon as he makes the pickup of the envelope to be delivered, however, he's accosted by a demanding cop named Monday (Michael Shannon), who asks for the envelope back. Wilee says no and takes off, triggering a chase because, well, Monday really wants that envelope.
Koepp and coscreenwriter John Kamps use a ticking clock to show Wilee's progress. And, in one of the film's few interesting gimmicks, they occasionally wind the clock back a couple of hours to show what Monday and other characters were doing earlier that day, which led to the current situation.
The visual tricks may be cutting-edge but they aren't particularly original. Whenever Wilee reaches a particularly hairy juncture, Koepp takes the viewer inside Wilee's mind to visualize different potential routes - and outcomes. It's not unlike what Guy Ritchie does with Sherlock Holmes' mental processes in his dreadful Sherlock movies.
But the most intriguing facets of the story and its characters go unexplored. Why did Wilee never take the bar and become a lawyer? He makes reference to his hatred of wearing a suit - and the fact that he loves to ride fast - and leaves it at that. Wait - he gave up the law to be a bike messenger? (Because, while this story takes place on a sunny summer day, well, what if it had been a snowy winter one?)
Similarly, while we get backstory on the thing being delivered (it has to do with buying passage for a political dissident's child), the reason for the value of the object being pursued is never really clear. So it's hard to get invested in the outcome of the chase.
Which leaves us with Gordon-Levitt, Dania Ramirez as his on/off girlfriend and Wole Parks as Wilee's messenger-service competitor. They're being chased by Shannon, who seems to have more actual conflict to his story than Gordon-Levitt does to his. There's a lot of footage of people riding bikes with determined looks on their faces. Sorry, it's just not that exciting.
Without some sort of serious stake in the outcome, it's hard to imagine anyone getting too worked up about Premium Rush.
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine