Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Craziest Biker Ever?

What "Premium Rush" gets wrong—and right—about bike messengers

Bike messengers—those human Froggers and sworn enemies of cab drivers everywhere—are once again getting some action on the big screen. Twenty-six years after the trick-riding antics of Kevin Bacon in Quicksilver, new feature film Premium Rush will bring back all the traffic-dodging action and chase scenes you might expect from high-risk package delivery. The movie looks extreme enough to warrant a Jason Statham or two, but instead we get Joseph Gordon-Levitt as our hero Wilee, who introduces his thrill-seeking ethos with, “I like to ride. Fixed gear, no brakes. Can’t stop—don’t want to, either.” But the movie kicks off when some bad guys try to stop him:

I was a bike messenger for a number of years on the mean streets of Portland, OR, where—I’ll be honest—half of the “fast-paced danger” of the job involved weaving in and out of Priuses and trying not to drop my coffee while crossing wet streetcar tracks. To get a feel for how accurate Premium Rush is to the experience of being a real badass messenger in NYC, I spoke with James Whitefox, AKA “Fox.” A bike messenger for the past six years in Portland, San Francisco and New York, Fox currently rides for Clementine Couriers, a 24-hour messenger collective that services Manhattan and the outer boroughs.

Here’s what Fox says Premium Rush gets wrong about being a messenger in NYC:

1. Not enough grime: “New York is a grimy town,” Fox says. “Everything looks so clean in the clips I've seen. No way would someone as clean-cut and constantly smiling as JGL make it as a courier here—you gotta be on edge from the moment you leave the door in the a.m. to that first beer when you call it a day. Chilling out leads to drifting off, and next thing you know, you're having to pick between a dump truck and some matron from Milwaukee with a double armful of shopping bags as viable places to crash-land (hint: go with the dump truck).”

2. Too tricky: “I also don't see riders pulling tricks like JGL does in the trailer. Most guys just concentrate on going fast and avoiding ‘situations.’ Except for knowing how to hop a curb in a heartbeat if one of those situations is about to get real, most guys I know out here don't mess with tricks.”

3. What Fox calls “the personal factor”: “You see office workers and cops talking to JGL like he's a real human being,” he says. “I've worked as a courier for six years in three cities on two coasts. I've probably made 20,000 picks and drops (deliveries), and it's very rare to have interactions with the folks in those offices that are as personal and heartfelt as what the trailer shows. Especially in New York, where time IS money.

4. The slowest rush ever: “The title refers to a service level, which is the timeframe assigned to each package within which it must be delivered. ‘Standards’ at most companies are two to three hours, ‘rushes’ are one hour and ‘super rushes’ are thirty minutes. The movie makes it seem like a big deal to get the package from the Columbia University area to downtown in the 90 minutes allotted to a ‘premium rush,’ but any rookie with a decent handle on Manhattan traffic could make that run in 45 minutes—60 tops if you somehow get stuck at 42nd AND 34th.”

5. Too extreme?: “Finally, the trailer opens with a JGL voiceover, some kind of paean to riding brakeless and not being able to stop.” Fox says. “Nobody who's been obliged to book it like a human yo-yo thru the cacophonous tangle of metal and concrete and pedestrians and Other Dangerous Things that make up what we call Traffic—even for more than a couple days—is gonna have that devil-may-care attitude. Or if they are, they're not gonna talk about it. I ride a track bike in the city, but it’s not because I ‘can't stop, don't wanna stop.’ On the contrary, it forces me to be a more skillful and conscientious rider.”

With all that said, Fox says there are definitely things Premium Rush gets right, including messenger camaraderie and the general laidback ethos when off the clock. Everyone he knows who hasn’t seen the movie already is pretty amped to see it when it opens August 24. And if it’s a hit, Fox has a few ideas for the sequel:

“Tattoos. More bad tattoos. More radio chatter. More montages of JGL organizing the contents of his bag because every messenger I’ve ever met is a sucker for that kind of stuff. More close-ups of glamour status bike components after months of getting scraped on curbs and parking meters. And did I mention the grime? Definitely more grime. Really, though, the movie is gonna be awesome, no matter what. As long as they never make it in Smell-O-Vision. Anyone who's ever lived with a messenger or dated one can appreciate that.”