Premium Rush lives in the moment. It consistently chooses pace of action over depth of character and the chaos of dodging traffic over the satisfaction of fully fleshing out a plot. If that decision strikes you as shortsighted or foolish, I can assure you it’s actually not. Sometimes a director has to make a frank appraisal of the material they have to work with, and from there shape a movie that's enjoyable to watch by any means necessary. Premium Rush really doesn’t have strong enough protagonists or interesting enough opinions to make it worthwhile entertainment, but thanks to excellent self-awareness by all involved, it compensates by becoming balls-to-the-asphalt chaos. The resulting swerve-fest is above-average and probably even worth seeing thanks to a truly reprehensible and awesome performance by Michael Shannon.
His Bobby Monday, a rogue gambler with a weakness for Asian games, is mentally deranged and fascinating. Whether obnoxiously laughing in the middle of chase scenes, complaining about the foul language used on network television or straight up murdering people, he’s consistently riveting and unpredictable. He could easily carry his weight in a far better movie, but since he’s in this one, he operates like a ringer, swooping in whenever the audience needs a break from the miserable New York City traffic.
Luckily for Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), that bumper-to-bumper keeps him in business. He makes his living delivering messages by bike all over the busiest city in the United States, and while he has plenty of other options, he continues to peddle because 1) he likes it, 2) there’s a girl involved. Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) doesn’t share his affinity for their profession, but she does admire his incredible skill. She considers him the best bike messenger she’s ever seen, so when her roommate needs to deliver an envelope, he’s the natural choice.
Apart from a few flashbacks, Premium Rush uses its zippy runtime (91 minutes) to follow the envelope as it’s delivered, essentially in real time. It’s entrusted to Wilee a little after 5:30. He agrees to drop it off at the second location by 7:00. The window should be large enough, but after a bike cop begins giving chase, Monday appears like a crazed sociopath hellbent on stealing the cargo and our protagonist begins having second thoughts about carrying out his responsibility. That cushy timeframe quickly starts to look more like an impossible deadline.
All of this works, but it only works up to a point. For Premium Rush to be anything beyond in-the-moment-exciting, it would need to contain human beings we cared about with problems we were willing to invest in. It does not. It contains characters we develop a slight affinity for. with problems we generally hope turn out okay. So, we casually root for them and marvel at their wild, two-wheeled exploits.
Luckily for viewers, those exploits are shown using that movie device where the film pauses time and allows the character to play out different decisions before choosing the most acceptable one. This usually gets annoying with repetition, but since avoiding death is a major component of bike messaging, it really works here. Wilee routinely chooses between two or three different paths through traffic, some of which we see resulting in grievous injury and one of which leads to an unencumbered path forward.
There are a lot of problems with Premium Rush. Because of the brevity of many of its conversations, the dialogue often comes off a bit neutered. Because of how now-focused many of the characters are, it’s hard to emotionally identify. Because of its basic subject matter, it’s hard to find depth. Because of a lot of things, it’s just not that good, but even with all its skinned knees and bruises, it’s still a fun ride. It’s the type of movie you’d never change the channel on, even if you wouldn’t start it from the beginning. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment, but for the sake of clarity, let’s call it three stars.