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Premium Rush review: Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes the best of two wheels

“I hate brakes. Brakes are death,” says Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his new film, Premium Rush, about a Manhattan bike messenger whose latest delivery puts him on the wrong side of a crooked cop. In many ways, this no-brakes philosophy applies to both the main character, Wilee, and the movie itself, which unfolds in a frenzied blur of forward motion, criss-crossing New York City’s crowded urban island at (quite literally) breakneck speed.

The bike-messenger lifestyle is one that likely seems terrifying to anyone but the most hardcore urban bicyclists, but Levitt and Premium Rush director David Koepp manage to capture not only the appeal of the messenger lifestyle, but also take you inside the science of it, and – most importantly – tell a fun, exciting story full of unique characters and spectacular stunts.

In Premium Rush, what begins as a routine delivery turns into a wild ride for Levitt’s character, a champion messenger who ditched law school in order to live life to the fullest and take a rain check on the rat race. After his girlfriend’s roommate asks him to deliver an envelope to Chinatown, he attracts the attention of shady police detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who will do whatever it takes to acquire the envelope and its mysterious contents.

As one might expect, Wilee’s bicycle skills and knowledge of every shortcut, hidden path, and alternate route through the city proves troublesome for the crooked cop on his trail, and Wilee soon realizes he needs to use every trick in the book – and call in a few favors – in order to make the delivery.

While the movie can be predictable at times, it’s the good kind of predictable, as Premium Rush feels like an old-school PG-13 thriller aimed at younger audiences, complete with a cast of loveable outcasts, a rebel who finds a noble calling, and the ever-present threat of authority figures drunk with power. And while you’ll probably be able to guess how the movie ends, it’s the journey – not the destination – that makes for an entertaining ride.

One particularly innovative element of the movie has you seeing certain intersections through Wilee’s eyes, and offering a visual breakdown of his decision-making process whenever he comes to a tricky traffic element.

For example, as Wilee nears a seemingly unavoidable collision, the camera freezes, then takes the audience through each of the routes Wilee considers in the split second before he makes a decision. Veering around a taxi in one direction ends with him flying head over handlebars as the cab’s passenger door opens in front of him, while another route results in him hitting the trunk of a car , then bouncing like a rag doll between multiple trucks and delivery vans. A third option sends him onto a sidewalk, around a pretzel vendor, and back into the street again unharmed – so he quickly opts for that route, making the last-second turn that avoids the two earlier, painful scenarios.

It’s an eye-catching visual trick, and like much of the film, gives you even more respect for the real-life messengers out there and the brutal accidents they risk.

Premium Rush also features some amazing feats by the stunt cyclists – many of whom are real-world bike messengers – and Levitt himself, who does a respectable amount of his own stunts. Koepp’s attention to detail with the stunts is evident in every trick, and earns the movie points for both style and danger.

The film’s director also shows a keen eye toward the tech-friendly side of messenger life, showcasing the ways they use Google Maps-style navigation and street-view imagery to get where they need to be in the shortest time. Koepp has described the film as a “map movie” of sorts, and it’s easy to see why the description fits. The ubiquity of smartphones and hands-free communication also plays a big role in the film, and gives it a very real anchor in what we glimpse on the city streets every day.

As for the film’s star, Levitt is the perfect choice for Wilee, a role that lets him showcase his charisma and have fun with the character’s snarky, anti-establishment philosophy. He’s a physical match for the character, too – both in his body type and the way he handles himself on the bike. However, it’s Michael Shannon who offers the most memorable performance in the movie, alternating between manic, unpredictable fits of rage and a scary, single-minded focus on the prize his character is chasing. Shannon manages to chew up every scene he’s in with wild-eyed monologues and erratic mood shifts, and ends up with a bit of Dennis Hopper in Speed mixed with Gary Oldman in The Professional, stirred up and crammed into a poorly fitted suit. And yes, he’s every bit as fantastic as that cocktail seems.

To its credit, Premium Rush is exactly the film it’s billed to be: a fast-paced thriller that unfolds on the streets of Manhattan and offers a peek inside a culture that many of the city’s inhabitants are aware of, but know very little about. Bike messengers are a part of city life that often fades into the background when it’s not darting by you at high speed, and both Koepp and Levitt have done an admirable job of not only taking you inside the messengers’ world, but making convincing heroes out of them, too.