He’s a Manhattan bicycle messenger and his name is Wilee, like the coyote. But Wilee (the always-brilliant Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is more like the road runner in this story. He has an envelope to deliver, and Bobby (Michael Shannon) wants to stop him. This nifty little thriller does not need much more than that to hold our attention. And yes, it delivers.
Director and co-writer David Koepp (writer of “Spider-Man,” “Panic Room,” and “Jurassic Park”), like his hero, pares everything down to the essentials, and that means removing the brakes. Wilee explains that his bike has no gears and no brakes. It cannot coast, so the pedals never stop turning. “People risk their lives for 80 bucks on a good day,” he tells us. But he loves the freedom, the adrenalin, the constant recalibrating as he swerves in and out of traffic and tries to stay safe in a city were “door” is a verb and getting “doored” (slamming into an opening car door) can cause major injuries.
Just as Wilee is constantly juggling and recalibrating his options as he determines his strategy for getting to his destination as quickly and as safely as possible, with the priority on speed. Koepp takes us inside Wilee’s head as he looks down different paths and calculates what the outcome will be for each one. He applies the same sort of calculus to the rest of his life. He graduated from law school but never took the bar because he cannot see himself wearing a suit to an office, at least not now. He cares about his girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), but he cannot plan far enough into the future to manage to get to her graduation. He likes being in the moment. He does not like anything that reminds him of the other life beyond the urgency of making the deadline. He loves being a part of the few, the proud, the bike messengers — in a world of email and FedEx, there are still some things that have to be carried in person — but he is feeling increasingly competitive with Manny (Wole Parks), who seems to be chasing Wilee on the streets and Vanessa after hours.
Nobody gets mad better than Michael Shannon. I do not want to give away too much about what he is trying to do and why, so I will just say that he is great as a volatile man cracking under extreme pressure. Like Wilee, he looks from side to side to evaluate his options and is still just about able to continue to appear normal when he needs to. Koepp keeps the gears moving like a Swiss watch, hitting rewind to show us how the characters got to where they are but keeping the pacing tight, with just the right touches of comedy, romance, and plot for a nicely satisfying little late-summer treat.
Note: Be sure to stay for the credits to see a clip showing Gordon-Levitt’s real-life on-set accident, which required 31 stitches on his arm.
Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and some violence including bicycle accident and a gun, characters injured and killed, and some strong language (one f-word).
Family discussion: Why did Wilee prefer being a messenger to being a lawyer? What does his name tell us about him? What did the movie gain from being told out of order?
If you like this, try: “Quicksilver” with Kevin Bacon, “Cellular,” and “The Transporter”