First, you should know that this is a movie about people you would probably hate in real life, whether you are a bike rider or an urban driver. But the narrator acknowledges that right up front. Second, very little of what you see could happen in real life. If you run as many red lights as the riders do here, it won’t be long before you tangle with a vehicle, and guess what? The vehicle wins, every time, and you are dead or maimed. But third, this is not real life, this is just an extremely kinetic movie that intends to do nothing more than entertain you and take you on a lot of wild rides through the streets of Manhattan, and it does a bang-up job of that.
What we see is a fiercely competitive culture of risk-takers who do this work as much for the adrenaline rush as for the paltry money. (In “real life” I suspect it’s just a job for most of them.) We follow three bike delivery people (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, Dania Ramirez, and Wolé Parks) as they navigate the streets, breaking every traffic rule ever written. Wilee picks up an envelope at Columbia University that has to go to Chinatown ASAP. Before he can even get going a bad cop (Michael Shannon) tries to hijack the envelope. But it’s not going to be that easy. A sense of pride and competitiveness compels Wilee to do his best to deliver the goods. And we’re off to the races.
In a movie, how the story is told visually can be just as important as the story itself. The story is good enough, but the execution is fantastic. First there’s the stunt riding and the cinematography, which puts you right down there with the riders. (Gordon-Levitt took a header right through the rear window of a taxi and had to have 31 stitches.) After that there’s the location. The magical Isle of Manhattan is very much a co-star here. All the routes are real, and the camera frequently swoops down from on high and barrels along them. These kids are all connected by cell phones with GPS, and when a route is chosen we see it impress itself on a 3D map at lightning speed. It’s Google Maps come alive.
There are more tricks. Frequent flashbacks with a clock in the corner, whereby the things that are going on begin to slowly make sense. A really ingenious device whereby when Wilee approaches an intersection swarming with vehicles and pedestrians, we freeze on him and then see his brain assessing the half-dozen or so possibilities open to him, most of which end in disaster for him or someone else, and we see the disasters played out. This is very effective. There are lots of other narrative tricks, and not a single one detracted from my enjoyment; in fact, they all enhanced it.
The cast is all good, but the stand-out is Michael Shannon. He first made an impression on me in Revolutionary Road. Just a few months ago we saw him in Take Shelter as a man who might be losing his mind, and were really impressed. Here, he deserves the Gary Oldman Award for Hateful Intensity. He seethes, he shouts, and it’s all completely convincing. His death is exquisite, and one I’d never seen before, which is almost impossible these days. In short, the most fun I’ve had at the movies in quite a while.