They've got the names wrong in Premium Rush. In this silly, serpentine Manhattan chase pic, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the intrepid bike messenger Wilee - as in Wile E. Coyote - and Michael Shannon is his nemesis, Detective Monday, although he keeps telling everybody he's Forrest J. Ackerman (an off-point reference to the late movie-memorabilia collector and sci-fi maven).
But it's really Shannon's character, a crooked cop with a gambling debt, who should take the name of the relentless Looney Tunes stalker, and Gordon-Levitt should change his to Road Runner. He doesn't announce himself with a beep!beep!, but in every other way, Wilee outsmarts and outmaneuvers his pursuer. If Shannon dropped an anvil on Gordon-Levitt's head, he'd dodge the plummeting object and somehow make sure Shannon got his noggin flattened instead.
Unfortunately, David Koepp - the A-list Hollywood screenwriter (Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds) and decidedly less-successful director (Ghost Town, Secret Window) - can't find the right Looney Tunes-ish tone for his immersion into bike-messenger culture. Like Quicksilver, that '80s Kevin Bacon classic, Premium Rush dives headlong into the glamorous world of two-wheeled couriers: the torn T-shirts and grease-smeared shorts, the gruff but lovable dispatcher (Aasif Mandvi), the foxy female cyclist (Dania Ramirez), the tony boîtes where the tattooed pedal-pushers congregate, and hey, just the whole bike messenger esprit de corps.
"We get paid to ride," enthuses Wilee. "What could be better than that?"
But as Gordon-Levitt goes hurtling down Broadway to deliver an envelope in Chinatown before the 7 p.m. deadline, Premium Rush can't decide if it's a serious, ticking-clock thriller or an antic, stunt-driven cartoon.
Shannon, Oscar-nominated for Revolutionary Road and responsible for a beautifully calibrated performance as the Midwestern family man haunted by apocalyptic dreams in Take Shelter, has clearly decided he's in an animated romp. The actor huffs and puffs, cracks his knuckles, and pops his eyes wide, cursing every time Wilee gets away. Which is every time they hit an intersection. Wilee shimmies and weaves through the waves of pedestrians and cross traffic, while Monday is left honking his horn, stuck behind a bus.
Stealing a gimmick from Limitless (it worked more efficaciously with Bradley Cooper), Wilee - riding his brakeless, fixed-gear bike - pre-visualizes the options when he pulls up to a light: Go to the left and get doored? Cut to the right and get run over by a van? Snake up the middle and he'll hit a baby in a stroller. But look: If he jags just this way, and then zigs that way, and jumps the curb onto the sidewalk, he's good to go.
There's a high-speed sequence under the trestles of an elevated subway line that evokes - pathetically - The French Connection, and there's some borderline ethnic caricaturing as Koepp ventures into black-market financing and Pai Gow betting parlors in Chinatown.
Gordon-Levitt, messenger bag strapped to his torso and a helmet to his head, does a lot of his own riding (a closing credit outtake shows the aftermath of a collision with a cab), although the trickier stunt work is left in the hands, and wheels, of professionals.
Wilee, who makes his fateful pickup at the Columbia campus, knows the university because he was in law school there. Maybe one day he'll take the bar, put on a suit, and settle down with a nice six-figure income. But right now, "the bike wants to go fast," he says to his girlfriend.
And he wants to be on it.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies