In David Koepp’s hugely entertaining thriller Premium Rush, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a bike messenger named Wilee, nickname “Coyote.” Right up front, Koepp is telling the audience what kind of movie they’re going to get: a nonstop chase, full of blown schemes, slipped traps, and madcap humor, in the spirit of a Roadrunner cartoon. Only Gordon-Levitt isn’t the Wile E. Coyote in this scenario. That role falls to the transcendently silly Michael Shannon, playing a crooked cop who always thinks he has the drop on the Roadrunner, but usually winds up with an anvil dropped on his head. He’s Premium Rush’s villain, but Shannon doesn’t attempt anything like the austere derangement of a Hans Gruber type, even though he specializes in playing terrifying nutjobs. Instead, he’s a buffoon of the first order, and his hapless tomfoolery sets the tone for a light, fast, frequently hilarious 90 minutes.
Unfolding more or less in real time—Koepp fiddles with the chronology too much to make it official—Premium Rush follows Gordon-Levitt as he darts through Manhattan on a messenger bike with a fixed gear and no brakes. He takes an envelope from a university student who wants him to dash it over to Chinatown, gravely stressing the importance of the task. As soon as Gordon-Levitt gets on his bike, Shannon confronts him, claiming he needs the envelope for police business. In the first of many feints to come, Gordon-Levitt gives Shannon the slip and heads across town, not expecting that this supposed campus cop will be trying to run him over minutes later.
The contents of the envelope are clarified later, as are Shannon’s hilariously pathetic reasons for coveting it, but it’s mostly a MacGuffin, a thin excuse for the tires to meet the pavement. Koepp wants to capture the immediacy of bike messengers zipping through hostile territory, but Premium Rush has an arcade elasticity that’s a few stops removed from reality. In a clever touch, he slows down the action in dangerous situations and charts the various paths Gordon-Levitt can take to get out of trouble—like a split-second Choose Your Own Adventure where two options end in bloody catastrophe and a third is a needle-thread to safety. No matter how perilous things get, he never stops having fun—and neither does the movie.