Early on in “Premium Rush,” our hero — Wilee (Joseph-Gordon Levitt), the fastest bike messenger in New York — is accosted by a nicely dressed but thuggish man (Michael Shannon), who identifies himself as Forrest J. Ackerman (which gives the character more hipness cred than we would have expected). “Wilee?” he asks after Wilee has given him his name. “Wile E.? Like the coyote?”
Wilee may be no roadrunner, but within this movie's scheme, it's “Ackerman” who's in the coyote role — forever chasing after Wilee and being foiled over and over again. Wilee has just picked up a “premium rush” delivery — a thin envelope that has to get from Morningside Heights to Chinatown by a certain time. Unfortunately, the envelope appears to be just as important to Bobby Monday (Ackerman's real name, we soon find out) as it is to the customer.
What ensues is a chase — actually a series of chases — as Wilee tries to fulfill his job; Monday tries to stop him by any means; Wilee tries to get help from stubborn colleague Manny (Wole Parks); and a frantic motorcycle cop (Christopher Place) is somewhere at the rear end of this loose caravan. All of this transpires more or less in real time, with the “in-between” material — the parts of the journey that aren't interesting enough for a movie — replaced by a series of flashbacks.
A superimposed digital display suddenly rolls back the time, and piece by piece we learn what's in the envelope, where it came from, who Monday is, why he's willing to stop at nothing to get it, and (much less crucially) the history of Wilee's disintegrating relationship with fellow messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez).
The relationship subplot is handily the worst element in the film. Writer/director David Koepp (“Stir of Echoes,” “The Trigger Effect”) tries like crazy to integrate this romantic angle with the main story, but the attempt creates more of a distraction than an expansion of the chase.
“Premium Rush” borrows its best trick from the two Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes entries — or from Tom Tykwer's transcendent “Run Lola Run,” which is probably what inspired Ritchie. One of the reasons Wilee is the city's best bicycle courier is that — like Downey's Holmes — he rapidly visualizes the results of all options ahead of him, until he finds the one where he doesn't get creamed. He also visualizes nice little GPS maps of various possible routes.
“Premium Rush” is a pretty good addition to what we could call the “Crank” genre (or maybe “Crank” should be all lowercase). Koepp tries to set up all the plot developments, though there are a few explanatory bits missing, as well as moments that require more than the usual suspension of disbelief. But plot isn't the point here: It's an excuse to stage some awesome bike/car stunts, and Gordon-Levitt's five stunt doubles deliver the goods.
The other redeeming element is Shannon's performance as Monday. Shannon has been admirable in a number of movies, notably as sanity-challenged characters in both “Bug” and “Take Shelter.” Maybe he's done comic work that I've missed, but it's revelatory how funny he is here, even as a brutal villain. His marvelous readings of lines that might not seem all that hysterical on the page provide most of the film's comedy.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).