Premium Rush is veteran screenwriter David Koepp's fourth directorial effort, and generally speaking, it's a well-realized B-movie. That's not a knock against Koepp or his ambitions. Indeed, his high-concept action film is as accomplished as it is because it takes a modest premise — a Manhattan bike messenger has to deliver a mysterious package while evading a corrupt cop — and goes far with it.
As a storyteller, Koepp (Ghost Town, Stir of Echoes) is still a better screenwriter than he is a director. His acknowledged difficulty filming stuntwork, especially in traffic near Columbia University's Morningside campus, is apparent: The film's big, action-intensive set pieces are little more than adequate. But Premium Rush is most dynamic when Koepp and co-writer John Kamp use their suitably convoluted plot as the movie's accelerant.
The appropriately named Wilee (The Dark Knight Rises' Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bike messenger who loves to go fast. Everything about his job and his character are related to this basic trait. That includes his refusal to put brakes on his bike, as well as his refusal to hand over a small envelope when an irate and obviously unstable cop named Bobby (character actor extraordinaire Michael Shannon) shows up demanding it. So Wilee pedals off, only to find Bobby in vicious pursuit.
As the chase criss-crosses boroughs, seamlessly integrated flashbacks show us why Wilee and Bobby both need that cargo. Premium Rush is most entertaining when it's establishing its central protagonists' motives and identities through flashbacks and zingy dialogue. Koepp is that rare screenwriter who knows exactly how to keep his characters' identities unique, defining them by their actions and mitigating circumstances.
Regrettably, Koepp doesn't always know when to keep his film's focus on those circumstances. A director with more confidence would know to cut ostensibly leavening one-liners, as when Wilee's boss (Aasif Mandvi) jokes that he's the only person who hasn't had sex with Wilee's on-again, off-again girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). Tacky lines like that and Vanessa's moronic endorphin-high exclamation, "That was the most fun I've had with my clothes on," only put a damper on the otherwise propulsive pace.
That such small details stand out, however, is a good indicator of how satisfying it is to follow Premium Rush's plot twists. If anything, Koepp and Kamp do such a good job of making you want to follow Gordon-Levitt's harried leader that the few inessential or even lesser plot points in the film really jut out. While filming in NYC traffic has apparently made Koepp want to focus on screenwriting again, one can only hope he'll return to the director's chair. He's a talented filmmaker, even if — unlike Wilee — he hasn't quite arrived.