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"Premium Rush" is rather like the bike messengers who speed through its story: fast, efficient, a little rough-and-tumble, and it gets the job done.
Director David Koepp starts with an arresting image: a New York bike messenger, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), sailing slow-motion through the air after a collision with a cab. The clock then reverses about 90 minutes to show us how he got that way. If that doesn't reel you in, nothing will.
We learn, in quick strokes of exposition planted by Koepp and co-writer John Kamps, that Wilee is the best bike messenger in Manhattan. He's a bike purist, preferring his fixed-gear, no-brakes two-wheeler to any fancy 12-speed model. He's also a law-school grad who would rather pedal down Broadway than sit behind a desk and has an on-again, off-again thing with Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), another bike messenger.
Wilee gets the call for a routine pickup: Take an envelope from Columbia University to Chinatown, nearly the length of Manhattan, in less than two hours. But the job turns out to be anything but routine.
For one thing, the person who hands Wilee the envelope is Vanessa's roommate Nima (Jamie Chung), who's unusually nervous about the transaction. Then there's the guy (Michael Shannon) who demands Wilee give up the envelope and seems strangely intense about retrieving it. Turns out the guy is Det. Robert Monday of the NYPD, who has accumulated some big gambling debts with the Chinese and Russian mobs and the envelope might help him clear his slate.
Koepp sets up all of the above all in the context of a classic beat-the-clock chase movie, updated with super-snazzy graphics. (Especially good are the slo-mo scenes in which Wilee envisions his options for avoiding lethal traffic tie-ups, each shown in comically graphic detail.) Koepp amps up the tension as Monday's pursuit of Wilee gets increasingly desperate and dangerous.
Gordon-Levitt, fresh off his pivotal role in "The Dark Knight Rises," is an engaging leading man tough and plucky, but also charming and accessible. He throws himself headlong into this role and, if a post-credit outtake is a gauge, accidentally threw himself into the back window of a New York taxi.
Interestingly, that's about as bloody as "Premium Rush" gets, as there's little overt violence and only a single gunshot fired in the entire film which must be some kind of record for action movies these days. Credit Koepp with knowing that audiences don't always need bloodshed to get a good rush of adrenaline.
A bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) carries some dangerous cargo in this lean, no-nonsense thriller.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Aug. 24.
Rating • PG-13 for some violence, intense action sequences and language.
Running time • 89 minutes.