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updated: 8/23/2012 1:12 PM

Nonstop bike messenger action thriller delivers the goods

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  • Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) takes to the streets of New York to deliver a mystery envelope in David Koepp's stunt-stuffed thriller "Premium Rush."

      Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) takes to the streets of New York to deliver a mystery envelope in David Koepp's stunt-stuffed thriller "Premium Rush."

  • Video: "Premium Rush" trailer

 
 

"Brakes are death!" Wilee the New York bike messenger shouts.

David Koepp's stunt-stuffed, time-tricked chase thriller "Premium Rush" apparently believes this, because it breathlessly flies from scene to scene without slowing down for anything.

Not for more background information. Not for more character development. Not for a more complex plot.

Nope, this streamlined movie was built for speed, baby, not comfort, and it moves so fast that it effortlessly leaps over minor lapses in common sense and character consistency.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, last seen as street cop John Blake in the Batman adventure "The Dark Knight Rises," plays Wilee, the proclaimed king of New York's elite bicycle messengers and the Evel Knievel of dangerous two-wheel stunts.

A former stunt performer and disgruntled law school dropout, Wilee now races through New York streets as if he's on a suicide mission.

"Premium Rush" begins with Wilee's body flying through the New York air in grueling slow motion just before it falls to the street. Wilee has apparently been struck by a car.

Then, the action slams into full-throttle reverse, and "Premium Rush" whisks us back to the events leading up to this moment, back to when Wilee accepts a job from his dispatcher boss Raj (Aasif Mandvi) to pick up a "premium rush" envelope from a quietly panicking Asian woman named Nima (Jamie Chung) on a college campus.

No sooner does Wilee start to leave when a man (Chicago's own Michael Shannon) in a suit stops him and identifies himself as security official Forrest J. Ackerman, and he needs to intercept that envelope.

Wilee doesn't pick up on this inside joke. The name refers to the late Forrest J. Ackerman, infamous publisher of the beloved Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

Even so, Wilee's instincts tell him to ignore the man and burn rubber to get away.

Wilee doesn't know that Ackerman is really corrupt New York cop Bobby Monday. He's in gambling hock to the Chinatown mob for $17,000. He's told that he can wipe away the debt if he can locate a special ticket and bring it back to Chinatown by 7 p.m.

Of course, that ticket is in the envelope that Wilee has just picked up.

The chase begins with Monday trying to run down the fleeing Wilee on his trusty bike, a "fixee" that uses a fixed single gear and has no brakes.

Monday has a revolver and the New York police to help him in a pinch.

Wilee possesses keen instincts, superb athletic skills and "bike vision," the ability to look at a street scene, calculate the outcome of different route options, and pick the one that won't get him killed.

(This "visualizing the outcome of physical action" gimmick was first used in "Sherlock Holmes," then in the sequel "Game of Shadows" and in "The Green Hornet." Here, co-writers Koepp and John Kamps add a fun layer to it and make it their own.)

An out-and-out chase movie, "Premium Rush" thrives on gut-grabbing shots of bike messengers dodging in and around New York drivers, whizzing past pedestrians with inches to spare and sometimes paying a painful price for being too daring.

Five people actually play Wilee: Gordon-Levitt and four stunt drivers on seven different Affinity Metropolitan bikes. (Three were used by Gordon-Levitt; three by stunt drivers, with one mounted on a camera rig for pulse-pounding point-of-view shots.)

The cast is flushed out first by Dania Ramirez as Vanessa, Wilee's ex and a fellow bike messenger whose heart still races for the hero; second by Wole Parks as Manny, a muscular messenger competing with Wilee for the title of the Big Apple's best.

Shannon gives the most engaging performance in "Premium Rush." He never lets his self-centered cop with "impulse control issues" slide into caricature or become a simple stock villain.

With the clock ticking, Shannon's Monday allows sheer desperation to cloud his judgment, rendering a frightening portrait of a man on a quite different kind of premium rush.

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