Gary Oldham in Leon the Professional. Eric Roberts in The Pope of Greenwich Village. Al Pacino in Heat and The Devil's Advocate. Vincent D'Onofrio and Nicholas Cage in just about everything they do. When it comes to unapologetic scenery-chewing, there are few who can match these actors for their glorious embrace of overindulgence. Michael Shannon can now officially be added to that list.
Playing a dirty cop with little impulse control (a trait he gleefully announces), the tall and gangly actor smirks and giggles and menaces his way through Premium Rush with maniacal aplomb. It's the kind of nervy, unhinged performance that makes you wonder exactly what movie the actor thought he was in.
Which isn't to say that it works against writer-director David Koepp's bike-bound thriller. Shannon is clearly meant to be a desperate and dangerous man, and his whacked-out approach heightens this fast-paced movie's threat level. In fact, Premium Rush is a textbook lesson in lean, mean, popcorn moviemaking.
Wilee (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a fearless Manhattan bike messenger, picks up an envelope and has 90 minutes to deliver it (the running time of the movie). Unfortunately, Shannon's corrupt detective wants what's in the envelope and is willing to do whatever he has to get it. This sets off a life or death rush hour chase through the city, where traffic, a rival messenger, an angry girlfriend, and a determined bike cop become either allies or obstacles. Deftly, Koepp bounces back and forth in time to fill in the motivations all the characters and their particular interest in the envelope, raising the stakes for everyone as he maintains the movie's breakneck pace.
The bike messenger genre is pretty small, but it's safe to say that Premium Rush is the best of the breed. Koepp (Ghost Town, Stir of Echoes) keeps a firm grasp on his movie's modest goals, delivering a ticking clock, a believable plot, a likable if vaguely sketched hero, an empathetic goal and lots and lots of action.
Using real bike messengers as stunt doubles, the movie is a fast, fun and furious as it dodges and weaves through New York City's colorful and crowded streetscapes. Over the years, Koepp has become a skilled director, and his chase sequences are exciting, inventive and easy to follow. His showiest conceit — bike-o-vision — presents the probable outcomes of Levitt's split-second decisions. Car doors catastrophically open at the last second, baby strollers roll into his path, hapless pedestrians end up struck by swerving trucks — as our hero calculates his best route for escape. It's a clever and amusing take on Guy Ritchie's visualization of thought processes in Sherlock Holmes.
Even in the dog days of summer, there are plenty of brainless action flicks at the multiplex. Unfortunately, most are noisier than they are entertaining, relying on expensive digital effects and chaotic gun battles to pass the time. Premium Rush is neither bombastic nor pretentious. It earns its hour-and-a-half of thrills honestly, with good, solid storytelling and filmmaking. It's amazing how rare that is these days.