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film review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a scene from “Premium Rush”

On the byways of any bustling metropolis, here is what the combination of bicycles + cars + pedestrians is certain to produce: (1) nasty accidents and (2) ferocious debates. More surprisingly, on the silver screen in Premium Rush, here is what the same combination fails to produce: a good action movie.

That's a shame, because the ingredients should add up to some real kinetic fun. Undeniably, the word "action" does apply, but only as it falls between "class" and "suit."

Yep, sue these guys for blatantly false advertising: This isn't premium, and it sure ain't a rush.

The city in question is Manhattan, where our hero may well be your villain. That's 'cause Wilee (pronounced as a prefix to Coyote) is a bike courier, the daredevil kind devoted to his "fixie." Translation: a bicycle with a fixed gear, a lightweight steel frame and, more to the point, no brakes.

Periodically, then, he interrupts his forward momentum by skidding to a halt.

The film, alas, does much the same.

The early frames spot Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt with his hair, like his bike, shorn to the bare essentials) pedalling maniacally through the urban maze of killer cabs and oblivious foot traffic and yawning car doors.

En route, via his cellphone headset, he keeps up a running conversation with his colleagues in the courier biz – including his sometimes girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), a sissy who insists on front brakes at the very least, and his constant rival Manny, whose ride of choice is a handcrafted Parlee complete with carbon frame and electronic shifters.

A bike courier on a Parlee is the equivalent of a pizza-delivery guy zipping around in a Lamborghini, but, in the good name of entertainment, let's allow that little anomaly to slide. In which case, we wait for entertainment to announce itself. And wait.

In the interim, a wavering storyline starts to appear, something about mobsters in Chinatown, a couriered envelope suspicious in its contents, a young Asian mother desperate to reunite with her little boy, and a corrupt cop with "impulse-control issues" (Michael Shannon's overwrought performance is similarly afflicted). None of this matters, of course. The plot is just the paint job on the vehicle: This is a chase flick, pure and simple, where the thrill is in the sheer raw speed. Or should be.

Certainly, there are chases aplenty – cars chasing bikes, bikes chasing each other, through red lights, up onto sidewalks, heading the wrong way on a one-way street. But how, you might well ask, does this mayhem differ from any normal day on the mean streets of Manhattan? Well, therein lies the problem: It doesn't, at least not enough to put the thrill in the ride.

Director David Koepp possesses the standard modern arsenal of bike-cams and trick riders and orchestrated stunts and CGI enhancements. However, like too many of his Hollywood peers, Koepp is a professional technician brimming with competence, yet bereft of unique talent. So the chase scenes have no visual flair and, consequently, we have no visceral reaction – hearts that should be in mouths are still at home, comfortably at rest and skipping nary a beat. As for our minds, they are just put on hold, perhaps occasionally wandering back to remembrances of kinetic things past – to the classic chases in The General or Bullitt or The French Connection. The history is rich; the present seems stuck in a fixed gear.

Maybe that is why Premium Rush feels obliged to provide its own built-in, thumbs-up reviewer. Enthuses Vanessa in the throes of the picture's climax: "That's the most fun I've had with my clothes on."

Speak for yourself, girlfriend, or, better yet, get those clothes off – but that would be a whole other movie.