Not every movie has to be complex or thought-provoking to work. Some of the best pleasures of cinema are the movies that have a simple premise, with maybe a few extra details thrown in to flesh out the concept. Action movies such as “Crank” accomplish this perfectly well, and horror movies like “Halloween” can get away with sticking to their focused guns. “Premium Rush” is another movie in the same line as those; set up a plot with multiple characters and motives, and then unleash the bread-and-butter bike chases that audiences paid to see.
“Premium Rush” also sidesteps one of the issues with many “simple” movies with its creative story structure. Right from the start we’re thrown into the action with our hero, Wiley, speeding down the New York City streets on his brakeless bike to deliver a package. Once he returns to the bike messenger office, his boss hands him an envelope that soon has him being hunted down by a crooked cop. The movie throws you directly into the action, and then assuredly slides in flashbacks every now and then to flesh out the characters and plot beyond it’s deceptively straightforward basis.
This back-and-forth arrangement means there is never a dull moment as we are entertained by the action while waiting for the next piece of the plot to fall into place at anytime. To make this work, a film such as this needs a charismatic cast to carry it through the nonstop movement, and everybody ably fills their positions. As our snarky lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings charm and determination to a character that we should probably hate in real life (seriously, cyclists are irritating, dangerous people, especially in a place like N.Y.C.)
While I’m sure many people would see this movie for his presence, the clear standout player here is Michael Shannon, as the corrupt cop, Bobby Monday. Shannon is typically known for his reserved acting style in very serious dramas, but “Premium Rush” gives him the chance to take off the reigns and have fun. Monday is a character that constantly digs himself into a deeper hole and is full of awkward tics, and Shannon’s willingness to go all out yields unexpectedly riotous results. He’s hams it up in the best kind of way, relentlessly barreling through the film like the coyote chasing Gordon-Levitt’s Road Runner.
And when it brings itself back to the bike chases, “Premium Rush” doesn’t pause for a minute. Even when characters are learning new information and talking to each other, they remain planted in their seat riding down the crowded streets. The stunt work (even when it’s an obvious stuntman doing it) is clever and lively, and director David Koepp finds creative places to throw the camera into the flow without relying on cheap visual effects and flashiness. The extent of his tricks is a digital map that shows Wiley’s path and a “Sherlock Holmes” style effect where time slows down so Wiley can figure out how to dodge traffic.
Koepp’s approach is straightforward and streamlined, which is a perfect compliment for how the movie goes about its business. Whether “Premium Rush” sticks with you once you leave the theater or its energetic thrills fizzle from your mind moments later, that’s ultimately not the point. It’s an adrenaline shot of a movie that achieves what most of the “Fast and the Furious” movies miss out on: a sense of good, clean fun buoyed by likable actors and a mischievous sense of humor.