'Premium Rush' full of wrong turns

Daredevil bicycle messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has been barrelling through congested Manhattan streets for so long, he's developed a sort of Spidey sense.

Whenever he comes to an intersection or obstacle, he's able to foresee the calamitous outcomes - running over a baby, being flattened by a truck, etc. - of each potential route and maneuver himself to safety.

If only "Premium Rush" had the same skill. After a promising start, it's plagued by a series of wrong turns and repeatedly steers itself into trouble.

Wilee's last call of the day, a delivery that must get across the city in less than 90 minutes, is the "premium rush" job of the title.

Things seem routine as he picks up a nondescript envelope from his girlfriend's roommate (Jamie Chung). But before he can even leave the scene, he's accosted by "campus security" (Michael Shannon, "Boardwalk Empire"), who demands the envelope.

Wilee, though, isn't much for authority. It's one of the reasons why instead of practicing law he's risking his life, hurtling through traffic at up to 50 miles per hour on a "fixie" - a lightweight, single-gear bike with no brakes - all for "80 bucks on a good day."

And it's why he's soon outrunning a speeding car driven by Shannon's character in a wild chase through the city like Bullitt on a bicycle. It's a great entry into the seldom-seen, adrenaline-packed world of couriers as Wilee veers in and out of - and, sometimes, directly at - traffic.

Then things get needlessly complex.

"Premium Rush" bounces around in time, retracing its steps to reveal more detail about its characters like a half-hearted "Rashomon." (Film historians may come to call the style "Rush-omon.") Before long, what should have been a straightforward action flick is burdened with the likes of human trafficking and the hawala system of money transfer.

It's through these periodic resets, though, that we learn Shannon's character is really an NYPD detective, deeply in debt thanks to underground Pai Gow games, whose best chance at getting square lies in intercepting that envelope.

Few actors can play unhinged quite like Shannon, but he's a victim of "Premium Rush's" wild tonal swings. Early on, he's menacing civilians or beating an enforcer to death in an alley. Later, he's little more than a "Scooby-Doo" villain, all but swearing he would've gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids.

Some of the action, not to mention the violence, seems aimed at adults. Other scenes - particularly those involving a hapless bicycle cop (Christopher Place) pursuing Wilee for his reckless driving - feel tacked on to appeal to pre-teens. Others still - the flash mob, some of the too-stylized bike tricks - threaten to turn the whole thing into the "Step Up" of action movies.

There's still plenty to like about "Premium Rush," though. It's thrilling at times, it has attitude to spare, and it features Dania Ramirez, as Wilee's girlfriend and fellow courier, who maintains a gorgeous, sweaty glow.

It's the sort of movie for which HBO and lazy Sunday afternoons were made.

Director David Koepp (who co-wrote "Premium Rush" along with blockbusters ranging from "Jurassic Park" to "Mission: Impossible") has some pretty entertaining ideas.

But despite the movie's gimmicks, including scenes seemingly sponsored by Google Maps, its greatest asset is Gordon-Levitt.

He's one of Hollywood's most promising young actors, and he throws himself headfirst into the role. (He also accidentally threw himself into the back window of a taxi during filming. Stick around for the closing credits for footage of the aftermath.)

It's one thing to command the screen while delivering lines on a soundstage, but doing so while pedaling furiously through Manhattan traffic is a thing to behold.

"Premium Rush" is just his latest shiny thing in a huge few months that began with his solid work in "The Dark Knight Rises" and will continue in the sci-fi thriller "Looper" and Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."

But even though "Premium Rush" was filmed two years ago - before either its hero or its villain had attained their current clout - it's clear they were better than its material.

They'd certainly already accomplished too much to deserve to be on either end of the movie's triumphant rejoinder: "Suck it, douche bag."

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.