The streets of New York City have rarely seemed as dangerous as they do in Premium Rush. A distracted jaywalker, an opening cab door, a gawking tourist — all are potentials for calamity when you’re a bicycle messenger pedaling through Manhattan in order to deliver that crucial letter or document on time. The best moments in director David Koepp’s slight, dull movie are the scenes in which bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pauses at busy intersections to figure out the path of least obstruction. The film cleverly uses animation to show you the alternate possibilities Wilee considers: If he goes left, he’s going to plow into that baby carriage. If he goes right, he will plow right into that slow-moving bus. Best to go straight and beat that speeding town car to the light. Still risky, but doable.
The bicycling scenes in Premium Rush, most of which are done by actual stuntmen with a minimum of computer-generated trickery, are fun and cool to watch for a while. But that’s all there is to the movie. The plot — a crooked cop, played with a surprising streak of humor by Michael Shannon, is trying to keep Wilee from delivering his latest package — is as layered and complex as a TV ad for detergent. Koepp, who also wrote the script with John Kamps, tries to disguise the slightness of this material by playing with the film’s chronology and stamping the ticking minutes on the screen. Wilee’s name is a clever derivation of Wile E. Coyote, from the Road Runner cartoons. There is also a female bike messenger (Dania Ramirez), but her name is plain old Vanessa. If the filmmakers had been brazen, they would have named her Hot Chick and at least be honest about her reason for being here.
Gordon-Levitt spends almost the entirety of Premium Rush running or bicycling or scrambling: He’s a constant blur of motion, which proves he’s an athletic actor in terrific shape. But if I want to watch extreme bike stunts, I turn on ESPN. If you grew up in the 1980s, you may vaguely remember a movie called Quicksilver, in which Kevin Bacon played a bicycle messenger in San Francisco. You’ve probably forgotten it, though. It’s a safe bet a similar fate awaits Premium Rush.