Premium Rush: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Pedals Furiously to Film Stardom

The most likable guy in indie films — and Christopher Nolan's favorite movie mensch — becomes an action hero on two wheels in this far-fetched, fun adventure

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Sarah Shatz / Columbia Pictures-Sony / AP

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a scene from "Premium Rush."

A New York Times survey this week found that 66% of the city’s residents approve of bicycle lanes on busy streets. Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the bike-messenger hero of Premium Rush, doesn’t. In his furious mission to break world records getting packages from sender to recipient, he treats the traffic-clogged thoroughfares of Manhattan as his private demolition-derby course. He has no use for bike lanes — for that matter, lanes — since he’s as likely to pedal down a crowded sidewalk, or the wrong way on a one-way street, or over the roofs and hoods of closely parked cars. A dropout from Columbia University’s law school, Wilee has also renounced obeying, or acknowledging, the laws of the road. His only creed is speed: “Goin’ down Broadway at 50 with no brakes. … What could be better than that?”

In the real New York City, passengers and pedestrians might form a posse to bring a reckless rider like Wilee to justice. Considering Wilee’s many actual and near-collisions with taxis, the movie could be called Crash Cab. Taking place on a work day at the peak of the rush hour (though the glut of cars is not as congested as it should be), the film takes such liberties with road courtesy and civilian safety that closing credit should read: “With gratitude and apologies to New York City.”

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50)

But David Koepp, the director of Premium Rush, would probably tell you that collateral damage is one of the unwritten rules of action films; the little people on the periphery of a car chase are just toys to be brushed away with a second or first thought. He and cowriter John Kamps (who also collaborated on the 2008 Ghost Town) have taken old movies about outlaw motorcycle gangs, like The Wild One and The Wild Angels, stripped the rooting interest down to one determined man and given him a different vehicle. At the end of the Sept. 1954 Mad comic book parody of The Wild One, Marlon Brando’s gang do just that; as one onlooker says, “The motorcycle crazies are now bicycle crazies!” Wilee is the bicycle crazy as solitary hero.

(READ: Corliss’s review of David Koepp’s Ghost Town)

His job this afternoon: pick up a package from a Columbia student and deliver it to a storefront in Chinatown within an hour and a half. As any New Yorker could tell you, that’s easy. Take the southbound No. 1 train at 116th Street, just outside the University’s main campus, to 42nd Street; switch to the Q or R line and get off at Canal Street; then walk or pedal six short blocks east and two blocks south to your destination at 147 Doyers Street. Probable elapsed time: 30 mins. (Your only frustration would be in discovering that there is no 147 on the street’s one block; the numbers don’t get higher than 30.) But Premium Rush is, as you must keep reminding yourself, a movie, where geography, plausibility and road courtesy must all bow to the need to keep the story churning and the wheels spinning.

(READ: Joel Stein’s interview with Joseph Gorden-Levitt by subscribing to TIME)

The Columbia student, Nima (Jamie Chung), is a roommate of Wilee’s girlfriend and fellow bike messenger Vanessa (the lusciously muscular Dania Ramirez). Whatever is the envelope she’s given Wilee has attracted the attention of a lawman who identifies himself suspiciously as Forrest J. Ackerman but is in fact a screw-loose NYPD detective named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon, in full frustration-fulmination mode). Wilee refuses to hand over the envelope and scoots away from Monday. Cue the chase, which lasts the same as the movie’s 90-plus mins., occasionally interrupted for flashbacks explaining who owes what to whom.

(READ: Michael Shannon as one of the Great Performers of 2008)

In one of their few face-to-face meetings, Monday notes that the biker is named for Wile E. Coyote of the Warner Bros. cartoons. In fact, that’s the role Monday is assigned, while his prey is as the elusive Road Runner. It takes the cop a while to realize that. “Chasin’ a bike — eh eh!” he barks. Oh yeah? A guy in a car chasing a guy on a bike through the most auto-hostile city in America: which one has the greater mobility? And who can go places forbidden to the other? Again, a local would have advised Wilee to take the miles-long, no-car bike lane along the Hudson River. And if Monday crashes that green-city party, Wilee might shout to passersby, “This maniac is trying to kill me!” But that would be too simple for a movie that wants to display the daredevil expertise of parkour on wheels. Think Speed Racer, but without rules or engines.

(READ: Corliss’s contrarian rave for Speed Racer)

The plot bears some similarities to Joe Quirk’s 1999 novel The Ultimate Rush, set in San Francisco, and with a messenger who uses rollerblades, not a bike, but who gets tangled in mysterious deliveries and the Chinese mob. (Rush has sued the movie for copyright infringement.) We’ll let the lawyers sort that one out, and just say that — for all the post-film questions that might trouble a viewer, especially one who’s lived in Manhattan — the movie is a vivid, crowd-pleasing B movie whose mechanics probably shouldn’t be taken as seriously as I have. It also has some cool moments in which Wilee instantly gauges the least hurtful route through an intersection. (The third route is always the safe one, until — whack! — it isn’t.)

(READ: Corliss on Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer)

Wilee may be a madman, but he’s an ingratiating one as well, because he’s played by Gordon-Levitt, the child actor (3rd Rock from the Sun) who has matured into Christopher Nolan’s favorite mensch (in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises) and the smiling poster boy for indie films. So appealing is Gordon-Levitt that, for great stretches of his new movie, I suspended my disapproval of his character and just went with the nonstop flow. He almost persuaded me that the film is, if not a premium rush, then an economy high.