‘Premium Rush’: Getting in gear with Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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‘Premium Rush” sounds like the name of an energy drink. Commercial tie-in possibilities, anyone? What the title of this movie about bicycle messengers in Manhattan actually refers to is the highest-priced category of delivery service: like express mail, only with handlebars. And if you’re buying premium rush service, the messenger you want is Wilee. For several years running, he has been crowned champion messenger of Manhattan. He’s fast, he’s reliable, he’s crazy. How crazy? “Brakes are death,” he likes to say. If you have ever been doored — or, for that matter, hit by a speeding cyclist — this is not the movie for you.

As Wilee, Joseph Gordon-Levitt zips through the city over the course of a late afternoon and early evening. ”Premium Rush” opens with him flying through the air (as if his character in “Inception” has donned a bicycle helmet) and it ends with . . . well, let’s just say a lot happens. Some of it includes a romantic triangle, gambling debts, Chinatown gangsters, a really unlucky NYPD bicycle patrolman, and, inevitably, a race against time.

“Premium Rush” has a lot of energy — too much, it’s kind of exhausting. It also has a lot of trickiness. David Koepp, who directed and co-wrote the script, with John Kamps, piles up plot twists and flashbacks. To try to limit confusion (good luck with that!), he frequently superimposes on the screen a digital readout of what time it is and has a CGI-projection of Manhattan pop up to show the route Wilee is about to take. Don’t look too closely at the street signs, though, otherwise you might start laughing. To get from Morningside Heights to Chelsea you go through Central Park? Only if you’re taking the scenic route.

The pop-ups must have sounded pretty sexy at the pitch meeting, but on the screen they look lame as well as slick — not a good combination. Less slick, but considerably lamer, is a gimmick whereby whenever Wilee comes to a particularly challenging intersection we see him anticipate various routes in slow motion. If he goes that way, he hits a pedestrian. If he goes another way, he ends up under a bus. But if he goes this way, then, yes, he crosses safely — and the film speeds up again. It’s like a cycling form of spider-sense, only we’re the ones who are supposed to feel the tingling.

Koepp is no stranger to spider-sense. He provided the script for the first “Spider-Man” movie, as he has for a pretty amazing number of other blockbusters: “Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible,” “War of the Worlds,” “Panic Room,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Angels & Demons.” What all of those very different movies have in common (other than big budgets and big box office) is length. “Premium Rush” lasts 85 minutes — and by the 40-minute mark you may be sucking wind harder than Wilee ever does. The story needs room to breathe. For whatever reasons, Koepp doesn’t give it any.

Gordon-Levitt is easily the best thing in the movie. He has the wiry build and kamikaze stare of someone who rides a bike for a living amid urban congestion. Michael Shannon, as the villain, looks like David Letterman doing a Frankenstein imitation. Someone stop this man before he grimaces again! Dania Ramirez looks extremely fetching as Gordon-Levitt’s fellow messenger and love interest (expect New York cabs to start sporting “I Brake for Dania Ramirez” bumper stickers), but much of an actress she’s not.

“Premium Rush” opens the same day as “Cosmopolis,” whose hero spends much of the movie caught in Manhattan traffic. What a double bill they’d make. Add “Traffic” and it could be a triple bill (oh, wait, that movie’s about something else). Don’t expect either to cause gridlock at the box office, though.