Set in the world of bike messengers in New York City, the film opens with a speed demon named Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) riding as fast as he can down city streets, weaving in and out of traffic, narrowly avoid collisions. In voice over, he extols the virtues of his dangerous customized bike: no breaks, one gear, the pedals always in motion. That’s an apt description of the film as well, for right off the bat his boss (Aasif Mandvi) sends him to pick up an envelope that must be delivered in 90 minutes’ time. Premium Rush. Intercepting this envelope is of supreme importance to a sweaty, nervous, desperate detective (Michael Shannon) who fixes Wilee with a wild-eyed stare and asks if he could take it off his hands. Perplexed by this odd request, a request that’s against company policy anyways, Wilee takes off. The detective takes off after him. The chase is on.
Filmed in smooth, sliding shots crisply edited together, the film is lightening fast, quick and uncomplicated, with a structure that’s a thing of beauty. After some time running forwards, it spins its gears backwards to speedily fill in the story of the envelope –the young woman (Jamie Chung) who needed it sent and why this bad guy needs to get his hands on it – interlocking with the scenes just witnessed with breathless ease before smashing forwards again. Koepp keeps things fast and funny, folding in a rival bike messenger (Sean Kennedy), Wilee’s somewhat exasperated girlfriend (Dania Ramirez), and a tenacious bike cop (Christopher Place) as the envelope crisscrosses Manhattan in a messenger bag, the deadline drawing nearer.
The danger in the movie is palpable, with bikes weaving this way and that, swerving around obstacles, in and around cars both moving, barreling through intersections and switching lanes, and parked, with doors unpredictably opening and closing. The end credits have an iPhone-shot behind-the-scenes look at a real on-set bike accident, Gordon-Levitt grinning as he shows off his bloody arm like Jackie Chan once did in credits of his films. Indeed, the choreography of the bikes has something of the grinning skill and speed of a well-executed fight scene, filmed and edited for clarity and speed. It’s especially thrilling to see an action movie so committed to a great gimmick. Refreshingly, there’s only one gunshot in the entire 91-minute running time. The pace is breathless, the thrills relentless. The film turns New York into a citywide obstacle course with all the nervous, propulsive energy that comes with bikes careening about and coming within a hair of crashing at every turn.
It’s a movie of simple human geography – Koepp cuts to a grid of the city streets from time to time – and feats of endurance as convincingly portrayed by stunt drivers and effects artists in a seamless illusion. As a summer packed with the typical bloated blockbusters –several quite good – is winding down, it’s nice to have a late-August break, an after-dinner mint to stave off cinematic indigestion. This is a film that’s mercifully simple and skillful, original yet comfortable, straightforward and speedy. It takes what could be standard genre stuff and livens it up with creativity and adrenaline. It’s a chase picture so go-go-go even the final shot before the cut to the credits is in motion and contains a fun visual trick. Motion picture indeed.