The movie begins with a scary collision between a bicycle and an automobile, which sends the cyclist flying through the air in extremely slow motion, flipping over a few times and landing hard his back. After that moment, with the time officially (and regularly) noted on the screen, the action moves backward, so that the rest of "Premium Rush" covers almost all of the moments that led up to that oddly premature climax.
David Koepp, the director of "Premium Rush," takes a relatively simple sequence of action and complicates it with an array of devices and coincidental collisions, in all senses of the word, between a number of people in Manhattan in a few short hours. Orchestrating the movement back and forth in time, he gradually collects a cast of characters around the protagonist, revealing a whole constellation of motives that take some time to emerge clearly from a general sense of confusion.
That protagonist, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who provides some minimal narration and exposition, is the cyclist whose accident opens the film. A law-school dropout who prefers the speed and energy of his job to a dull white-collar life seated behind a desk in a gray suit, he informs us that he is the best and fastest bike messenger in New York City, and the rest of the film proves him right. On a bike stripped of brakes and gears, he zooms madly through the crowded Manhattan streets (and sometimes sidewalks), jumping barriers, riding down stairways, narrowly missing pedestrians, weaving through rush-hour traffic, racing the wrong way on one-way streets, leaving a trail of accidents and angry motorists in his wake; the film even slows down to show how he chooses alternate routes to avoid certain disaster.
Wilee accepts a special commission from his boss, the premium-rush job of the picture's title. He must speed up to Columbia University, where he previously attended law school, and take a mysterious envelope from Nima (Jamie Chung), whom he knows from his time there, and deliver it to an address way downtown in Chinatown. That simple assignment provides the basis for a frantic series of events that ultimately involves the desperate mother of a child in China, the Chinese mafia, the Russian mafia, a persistent bicycle cop who chases Wilee for causing an accident, and most of all, a psychotic detective hell bent on taking the envelope from Wilee for his own complicated reasons.
Throughout its length the movie constantly backtracks to show a previous event, often from a different perspective, clarifying by degrees the meanings of particular actions and the personalities of various people. Wilee's major antagonist, Detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), pursues him relentlessly, driving his car as crazily as his quarry rides his bike, somehow negotiating the New York traffic by sheer will, screaming insanely all the while and threatening him with a physical pain that he finally manages to inflict.
Since most of the picture consists of one chase after another, the plot depends almost entirely on excessive speed and the concomitant element of danger, a generally exhilarating combination. A race through Central Park between Wilee and one of his colleagues even provides a sense of beauty in the midst of the breakneck pace and heightened emotion. In addition to that location, the director vividly and convincingly captures the familiar landmarks, the recognizable buildings, the crowded streets, the choking traffic, and the whole atmosphere of Manhattan on a warm summer afternoon; in almost every scene and sequence both the foreground and background look entirely real, presumably a testament to the magic of modern cinema.
Although Joseph Gordon-Levitt occupies the starring role, he hardly possesses the stature or the presence of a leading man; his offhand manner and consistent underplaying, however, contrast sharply with Michael Shannon's over-the-top rage. The real star of the film is New York City itself, which shines in the bright summer sunlight throughout. The other stars are the stuntmen who perform some amazing tricks on their unlikely vehicles (don't try those tricks at home, kids). In a decidedly limited and sparsely populated genre, "Premium Rush" is the best bicycle film since "Breaking Away."