'Premium Rush': A daredevil really delivers ★★★ 1/2

"Premium Rush" is great fun — nimble, quick, the thinking person's mindless entertainment. In the same week of "Hit & Run," which offers only meager escapism in a high-velocity realm, director and co-writer David Koepp's thriller about a bicycle messenger pedaling for his life, up and down and across Manhattan, delivers a bracing corrective. On two wheels, only! Four's for losers.

Like the recent "Source Code," Koepp's script, co-written by John Kamps, treats time and space as elastic story components and flashbacks as opportunities for invention, not just exposition. "Premium Rush" is propelled by Wilee (pronounced "wily"), a star in the NYC bike messenger universe played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His conveyance of choice is a stripped-down cycle of nervy simplicity: no brakes, no gears.

The pay's not much. "Eighty bucks on a good day," as Wilee narrates to us. (Wisely the screenwriters confine the voice-overs to the beginning and the end of the picture.)

A Columbia University law school graduate, Wilee's a rebel, uninterested in any cubicle-based employment. "Runnin' reds, killin' peds" — that's the life for him, he cracks, though his fellow messenger and sometime lover Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) wonders if he's reckless to a fault. Near the start Wilee gets a "premium rush" order to deliver an envelope from Vanessa's roommate (Jamie Chung) to a location in Chinatown. Inside the envelope is a marker for a considerable amount of money. A dirty cop with heavy gambling debts, portrayed with relish by Michael Shannon, has his reasons to intercept the delivery.

And that's the plot — Wilee pursued by a murderous bear of a detective, as well as an NYPD bike cop out to teach the messengers a lesson in manners.

Its plot covering a few hours in the life of Wilee, the 90-minute film does not stint on gimmicks. Three times, director Koepp presents us with visual segments in which Wilee, speeding through a potentially deadly intersection, runs what-if? scenarios in his head, depicted on screen. (The Guy Ritchie "Sherlock Holmes" movies work similar speculative games.) GPS-style mapping of Wilee's latest route through the snarl of Manhattan comes to life on screen. Some of this is too fancy, too much. But one of the pleasures of "Premium Rush," besides a crafty and well-told story, is its determined lack of green-screen and digital effects work. Most of the insanity looks vaguely humanly possible. An impressive cadre of stunt riders earned their keep on the film, and Gordon-Levitt got racked up pretty good during the shoot, as we see in footage tucked inside the end credits.

The movie itself boasts speed and a sense of humor, and Shannon nets some lovely, unexpected laughs with his increasingly desperate detective's topsy-turvy vocal inflections. The script makes everybody either smart, a smartass or both. This is rare; too many movies, of various levels of ambition, settle for writing idiots and jerks. (See: "Hit & Run.") To be sure, "Premium Rush" does not encourage safe riding practices in heavily populated urban areas. But Gordon-Levitt, wiry and intense, and the equally game (and gorgeous) Ramirez look swell together. And that's while wearing bike helmets, like all good death-defying cyclists should.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Premium Rush' -- 3 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violence, intense action sequences and language)

Running time: 1:31

Opens: Friday

CHICAGO

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