Every time something moronic like “Transformers” makes a lot of money, some of the people who liked it will telling the disapproving critics, “Not everything has to be Shakespeare! Just relax and enjoy the popcorn!” What these folks overlook is that it’s not an either/or prospect. Movies can be frivolously entertaining AND smart — satisfying on a basic, fun level, but also stylishly produced and not insulting to the viewer’s intelligence.
That’s “Premium Rush” in a nutshell. This adrenaline-charged end-of-summer trifle, directed and co-written by crowd-pleasing screenwriter David Koepp (“Panic Room,” “Jurassic Park,” “Spider-Man”), delivers 90 minutes of recreation in a way that’s simple but not simple-minded. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, a New York City bicycle messenger who’s even more of a reckless thrill-seeker than the profession calls for, who must deliver an enigmatic package to Chinatown while being harassed by a suit-wearing menace named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) who wants to take it from him. As he zips from one corner of Manhattan to another, weaving in and out of traffic like a madman, Wilee races against time, Monday, and other pursuers.
And that’s essentially it. Sure, Koepp (who shares writing credit with John Kamps) fills us in on details like what’s in the package and why Monday wants it, leading to flashback information on him and on the young Chinese college student (Jamie Chung) who ordered the delivery. We get some relevant background on Wilee, and on his co-worker and ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and on the fellow bike messenger, Manny (Wole Parks), who serves as Wilee’s friendly rival at work and in romance. But those elements are merely window-dressing for the movie’s sturdy, time-tested framework: an ordinary guy gets dragged into something dangerous, then reluctantly sticks with it because he discovers it’s the right thing to do.
Koepp keeps things moving with a visual style that puts us smack-dab in the middle of unnerving Manhattan traffic, most of it shot on location without stuntmen or camera tricks (though those are both deployed when necessary). Near-misses come at a dizzying rate, punctuated by occasional collisions to let us know the stakes are serious. (Gordon-Levitt actually smashed into a taxi during filming, an outtake of which appears with the closing credits.) One of the neat tricks Koepp uses is to freeze the action and show us Wilee’s split-second thought process as he considers and rejects possible paths through vehicles, pedestrians, open car doors (a particular hazard), and other obstacles. You may not have realized you wanted it, but you’ll come away from the film with a good sense of what it’s like to ride a bike in Manhattan — without the broken bones or road rash that would normally accompany that education.
Gordon-Levitt is characteristically sunny and confident as Wilee, and he’s a good unimposing leading man for a small-scale action flick like this. But the scene-stealer is Michael Shannon, who turns an ordinary bad guy into an impossibly amusing, almost campy, not-quite-over-the-top villain. His giggle alone may be worth the price of admission, one of many small but important touches that make the film a guilt-free pleasure.
B+ (1 hr., 31 min.; )