In The City That Never Sleeps, over 1,500 bicycle messengers perform the thankless task of navigating New York’s districts to hand-deliver the city’s urgent mail: “If you can’t email it, fax it, or FedEx it, then you need us.” None is more committed than the carefree Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), opposed to stuffy office work and clearly in his element gliding effortlessly through the overcrowded streets of the city, riding far too close to the (visually omnipresent) line between life and death with his No-Brakes-Allowed mantra.
For those cool enough to be knowledgeable about the various colloquialisms of the courier lexis, the film’s title alludes to the extra fee charged to the client for a speedy delivery. When Wilee is given an envelope by a Chinese student, little does he know of the shady underground hawala situation in which he is now involved. He is chased by corrupt cop Bobby (Michael Shannon), with money problems of his own, intent on acquiring the envelope by any means.
The clever narrative drip-feeds the audience through a series of recent flashbacks, revealing more about the envelope’s contents and the need for an efficient delivery, as well as the preceding circumstances leading to Bobby’s desperate pursuit.
Shannon plays the role exquisitely, maintaining a constant and terrifying threat to Wilee throughout. He exploits his character’s position of authority, constantly aware that a man in Bobby’s position can threaten his adversaries with the backing of the instrumental power he possesses.
The action scenes are exquisite: David Koepp (writer/director) delivers his own Premium Rush by gliding us through the labyrinthine streets with grace, juxtaposing the free-spirited fun that Wilee has when cycling with “premonitions” about what might happen if Wilee were to lose concentration for a second. Koepp leaves no doubt that the job is dangerous, which is important in breaking down stereotypes that cyclists cause too much trouble on the roads. Perhaps they do, yet the film is subtle in influencing car-driving viewers to warm to their fellow road users.
At times it feels as though Gordon-Levitt’s recent action roles (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception) might eclipse his bike-riding persona, as the premise of the film does at first appear mundane. But it’s refreshing to see a protagonist escape and outwit a gun-wielding villain (in his powerful car) on nothing more than a push bike. When reading “Wilee”, think “Coyote”, and you will understand the fast-paced nature of the film’s hero as he perilously dodges the uber-congestion of one of the world’s busiest cities.
The film is not without its flaws. Characters are not explored deeply enough, and there are often gaping holes in the plot. But the acting is splendid enough to make you indifferent towards these faults.
The action genre is in desperate need of novel chase scenes, and of villains who use their societal power to terrify as opposed to their physical strength, and Premium Rush provides all of these.
The tagline: “Ride Like Hell.” Koepp has, undoubtedly, taken us on one helluva ride!