With a title and a subject that promises the worst kind of “Xtreme” experience at the movies, “Premium Rush” deserves a measure of credit: This film is much better than it should be.
It’s not a masterpiece, not hardly. But there’s an old-fashioned story line hidden in the swooshing adrenaline surge of the movie, and a couple of fun-to-watch actors facing off in the lead roles.
This one’s about the exciting world of bicycle messengers in Manhattan, a topic that might have been somewhat fresh in the fragrant 1986 Kevin Bacon stinker “Quicksilver,” but feels out-of-date already.
A menace to pedestrians and motorists alike, bicycle messengers are a hard sell as movie heroes, so “Premium Rush” blithely plays up the outlaw aspect of the job.
And having Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the main man gives us a convincing maniac in the central role.
The movie’s story has Wilee (any echo of a certain relentless cartoon coyote is not only intentional, but is pointed out to us in the dialogue) picking up a message uptown, with instructions to deliver it to a Chinatown address.
Odd things happen right away. A livewire cop (Michael Shannon, from “Take Shelter”) begins harassing, and then following, young Wilee. It’s almost as though (all right, next sentence is a spoiler) he were trying to intercept the message because he owes a great deal of money to an Asian syndicate and is willing to do whatever it takes to stop our hero.
Much of the movie consists of Wilee racing through New York streets, employing his Sherlock Holmes-style clairvoyance about how the road will open up in front of him so he’ll avoid traffic as he careens through red lights. It’s — you know — chase stuff.
But director David Koepp (“Ghost Town”), who wrote the script with John Kamps, is one of the few people around who know how to construct a real movie story, and in outline his plot could be a classical Western. With bicycles.
I winced at some of the dialogue, and at the trendy look. The set-up is clever, though, and I enjoyed the way Koepp developed running gags (there’s one frustrated bike cop who really gets put through the wringer) as though he were a doing a Roadrunner cartoon.
In the supporting roles, Dania Ramirez, Aasif Mandvi and Jamie Chung don’t make a huge impression, but they don’t need to. We’re spending our time watching Gordon-Levitt be cocky and competent, and Michael Shannon bear down in pursuit.
They aren’t believable as characters, but the actors are so good they force you to pay attention anyway. Still, I have one plausibility complaint: Did nobody think of taking the subway?
The setting feels tiresomely “Xtreme,” but director David Koepp hides an old-school sense of storytelling within this hyper look at a bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pursued by a rogue cop (Michael Shannon) as he rushes the length of Manhattan. Not a classic, but a better movie than that description sounds.
Rated: PG-13 for language, violence.
Showing: Adlerwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Oak Tree, Woodinville, Cascade.