How do we define good acting? Different people have different theories, but for me it is simple - if a lead can take what is ultimately silly script and support it on the strengths of his charms, he is a movie star. If someone can take a generic character and turn him into one of the great, funny-yet-sinister villains with just some outrageous line readings and funny faces, he is a great character actor. "Premium Rush" has both, and proves yet again how vibrant Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon are on the film scene today.
JGL plays Wilee (like the coyote) the baddest bike messenger in the city. He went to Columbia University to study law (so we know he's smart) but he dropped out before taking the bar (so we know he's an individual) and he says things like "the bike wants to go fast" and "brakes mean death" (so, okay, he's a bit of a yutz). Luckily, there isn't much talking in "Premium Rush." But there is a ridiculous amount of high speed bike-riding action through a fairy tale Manhattan that ought to scratch the itch of any cycling enthusiast as well as folks who like to believe New York is loaded with nothing but crabby people who say "youse guys" a lot.
With the entire city as his personal velodrome, nothing gets between Wilee and his destination, not even a bug-eyed crooked cop (Shannon) trying to intercept a curious package before it gets to Chinatown. After a series of time jumps (the movie all takes place in one afternoon, but not in straight order) we learn that a postage stamp-sized MacGuffin has to get downtown by 7 o'clock or a moppety little boy is going to be stuck in the rain in a totalitarian state. And once it becomes personal, neither broken ribs nor an oft-delayed race with his personal workplace rival is going to prevent him from getting there on time.
In addition to propulsive camerawork with extra doses of zoom-zoom, "Premium Rush" has a few marvelous tricks up its sleeve. Racing neck and neck for most exciting is JGL's "cyclist-vision," wherein he can see beyond red lights and visualize the safest path in a Google Maps compliant route. It's like the "Sherlock Holmes" gag only… faster! (And, at times, intentionally funny.)
Also uproarious is Shannon's Detective Monday. From his very first line (introducing himself as "Forrest J. Ackerman") he is a thick, chocolatey shake of unexpected choices that would make Christopher Walken (or Ricardo Montalban) proud. He sounds like Michael Corleone during the scenes when his jaw was busted. He also has time to rail against inappropriate cusswords on network TV or "what the HR shrink says" between slapping people around. It is a triumphant bit of the over-the-top ridiculousness and I pray that 50% of it was ad-lib.
For three wonderful years I "worked the streets" in New York City. That has a bit of a nasty connotation but what it means, really, is that I was outside, in the elements, and dealing with the other loonies who refuse to stay indoors all day. Yeah, I was just a tour guide walking school groups from Rockefeller Center to the Museum of Natural History, but that I still recognize "Premium Rush"'s lust for the chaos of New York's exuberant spirit. Maybe if you spend enough time out there you really can find a cop who shouts "keep yuh arms inside the bus!" when they are pointing and shouting "he went thatta way!"