Life may move quickly in Manhattan, but the traffic doesn't. And that's exactly why Wilee loves his job. There's no stop-and-go gridlock for him. From his perspective, a bike messenger's role is to blow by all the sit-and-stew, suit-and-tie stuff of life. All he has to do is pump those pedals and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. And that's something Wilee is plenty good at.
Other bikers use fancy multi-gear units with all the bells and whistles, but Wilee rides a fixie: a lightweight, single-gear bike that doesn't even have brakes. If the wheels are moving, so are his legs. And all the rest becomes a blur.
Sure, on a good day he'll only bring in about 80 bucks. But the feeling of invincibility he gets while flying around swerving cars, dodging taxi cab doors, shooting past cranky pedestrians and spotting even the tiniest hole to shoot through the next traffic light makes the effort, the danger and the measly paycheck almost worth it.
It's one of those measly paycheck days, though, that sends Wilee pedaling into trouble. After realizing how light his money pouch is, he decides to pick up a premium rush delivery. It's all the way to the other side of town, but, hey, he's quick.
Just about the time Wilee signs for the little envelope and stuffs it in his pack, though, things started rolling south. First of all, a guy comes along saying he's a bigwig who needs the package back. Then, when Wilee says that's against the rules, the guy starts getting rough.
Before you know it, the messenger is playing cat-and-mouse with the tough guy who's chasing him … in a car. Just about the time the police join in, Wilee starts wondering if his $30 delivery fee might be a little low—while moviegoers start wondering if their $10 ticket price might be a little high.
On the face of things, Wilee appears to be a simple bike courier who isn't really interested in much more than enjoying the freedom of what he does. But with time we see that he really cares about fellow biker Vanessa, and would rather face the brunt of a bad situation than get her involved and possibly hurt. That doesn't sit well with Vanessa, however. She and scores of other bikers are all ready to put skin in the game to help Wilee in his time of need. (We learn it's sort of a "bikers code" to help another rider.)
Wilee could have actually begged off the dangerously frantic chase with a crazy cop named Monday. But he heroically sticks with it when he learns that the package he carries will help a Chinese immigrant named Nima reunite with her young son. Turns out, Nima worked three jobs for two years to raise the thousands of dollars necessary to pay for his delivery to the U.S. (by way of mafia-style guys who are little more than human traffickers).
When Nima hands her money over to a Chinese moneychanger, he warns her not to lose the ticket he gives her, saying, "May the Buddha watch over you." Wilee and Vanessa talk briefly about Daoism and Buddhism, and Wilee points out that he is likely more Buddhist in his approach to life.
The camera picks out the female bikers' cleavage as they lean over their handlebars. Vanessa wears a very tightfitting and shape-revealing tank top. A competitive rider named Manny attempts to kiss Vanessa. She, however, makes it clear she isn't interested in that kind of relationship with him. Later, she readily kisses Wilee.
The messenger dispatch, Raj, suggestively asks Vanessa, "When does Raj get to climb Mt. Vanessa?" A cop crudely jokes about sleeping with another policeman's wife and "avoiding her rash." After escaping a tense situation with Wilee, Vanessa laughs, "That was the most fun I ever had with my clothes on!"
Early on, Wilee talks of the traffic-dodging dangers associated with the bike messenger profession. He even mentions the possibility of himself someday ending up as just a smear on the roadside. We see that type of thumping danger on numerous occasions as riders—including Wilee, Manny, Vanessa and a pursuing police biker—hit vehicles, tumble over railings, smash into gates and skid out on the road. In each of those cases they generally get up with scraped arms, knees and faces.
There are a number of more severe crashes on display too. One of Wilee's gifts, for instance, is the snap-second ability to envision the different routes he might take when facing a dangerous situation. In one red light-running moment he sees himself a) swerving from a car and smashing into a baby carriage, b) causing a pedestrian to get crushed by an oncoming truck and c) getting himself bounced and broken across the hoods of three different cars. He chooses "d," otherwise known as the right path, but only after we fully experience the wrong ones. And in another case, he bikes out into oncoming traffic and envisions nothing but crashes; he ultimately smashes in a taxi cab's window, flying into the air and thumping down to the asphalt—getting knocked out and cracking several ribs.
Worse than that, though, is Detective Monday's manhandling of people. After Wilee's crash, for example, Monday climbs into the back of the ambulance with him and proceeds to yank a strap around the biker's fractured ribs to torture information out of him. Monday also picks up a young girl by the neck to make his vicious point. And he slams a Chinese man's head down on a truck bumper several times, causing him to hemorrhage and later die. [Spoiler Warning] Detective Monday eventually gets as good as he gives when his tooth is knocked out by a guy with a set of brass knuckles … and then a bullet hits the back of his head. We watch him stagger his way to a disturbing, slur-mouthed demise.
An angry Vanessa uses her bike chain and lock to smash a swerving cabby's rearview mirror. During the credits there's a quick clip of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt showing his real-life bleeding wounds after a failed, car window-smashing bike stunt.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and over 40 s-words. There is also a steady stream of "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑," "b‑‑tard" and "b‑‑ch." God's and Jesus' names are misused repeatedly (with God's getting combined with "d‑‑n" on at least a dozen occasions). We hear "p---y," "d--king," "balls" and "douche bag." While riding, Manny flips his middle finger at Wilee.
Drug and Alcohol Content
An old friend of Wilee's encourages him to go back and finish his bar exam, adding, "They say if you snort some Ritalin it'll be a cakewalk." Raj drinks a beer. Wilee and Vanessa are seen in a bar full of people drinking. Several folks in a backroom Chinese gambling hall clutch cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Detective Monday has a very obvious gambling problem. And it's his huge debt that sends him off to steal the valuable ticket from Wilee. He also displays a pretty wide racist streak, among other things, calling some Chinese "zipper heads."
After confounding a pursuing policeman, Wilee steals the guy's bike.
There's an old magician's trick of using lots of flash and flourish to distract attention away from a small sleight of hand executed behind the man's back, under a table or, sometimes, right in front of an observer's face. Premium Rush uses that trick with practiced aplomb.
The movie's pace is kept so brisk, the darting and weaving bike cinematography so exciting, the flashbacks so well-spaced that you almost don't notice the gaping logic holes in the premise. Almost.
What's much, much harder to miss is the over-the-top bad cop villain—with his impulse-control issues and torture-inflicting ways—and the profanity-per-New-York-minute dialogue.
The truth is, the filmmakers could have kept the flourish and, with a bit of Wilee's traffic-navigating forethought, found their way around this flick's potholes and flats. But they didn't. And that means unwary viewers who pedal into traffic anyway will be left with a less-than-magical case of cinematic road rash.