‘Premium Rush’: A two-wheeled escape | 2½ stars

There are more than 1,500 bike messengers in Manhattan, and Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the most sought after.

Toned and sporting a crew cut, Wilee travels light as he darts through New York traffic on a bike stripped of gears or brakes.

Sure, he has suffered a broken collarbone and a few concussions, and he has a pin in his wrist. But he’s OK with the trade-off of not having to wear a suit to work.

“We get paid to ride,” he says. “What could be better than that?”

The action-thriller “Premium Rush” offers a ground-level view of Wilee and his pals during one busy day as they run afoul of a sleazy detective (Michael Shannon). The story appears formulaic at first but gets increasingly twisty as the movie progresses — though not always in a good way.

Shot with a decidedly ’80s vibe and scored to ’70s music, the movie initially has trouble with clunky character introductions. The saucy Dania Ramirez (“American Reunion”) portrays a fellow messenger and former-ish girlfriend of Wilee. She is also friendly with Wilee’s main nemesis (Wolé Parks), a hotshot co-worker always trying to outrace him or abscond with his deliveries.

Wilee is first seen airborne in cheesy slow motion before it’s revealed he’s in mid-fall from a traffic collision. The plot then backs up an hour (complete with an onscreen clock), showing how he ended up in this precarious position.

“Premium Rush” owes a lot to Quentin Tarantino by relying on multiple shifting flashbacks. This makes the narrative thread quirkier, but it also overcomplicates a fundamentally simple story.

“Premium Rush” wisely keeps the stakes small yet personal. Wilee puts his speed, agility, stamina and intuition to the test as he attempts to deliver an envelope that contains a life-altering piece of paper. This is not a typical Hollywood plot involving stolen microfilm and legions of shadowy thugs pursuing the hero. It’s just about a good bike messenger, a bad cop and regular denizens they encounter.

However, it’s the cop who keeps things amusing. At first glance, Shannon (an Oscar nominee for 2008’s “Revolutionary Road”) seems to be going rogue. Mugging. Screeching. Overacting. Yet it becomes apparent his character as written isn’t that interesting, and it’s the actor doing everything he can to make him pop.

Bug-eyed and square-jawed, Shannon is like a younger, thicker version of Willem Dafoe. He ultimately takes over the movie, much in the way Gary Oldman’s raging detective does in “The Professional.”

Shannon was so memorable in last year’s “Take Shelter” as a laconic family man succumbing to apocalyptic visions. Here, he’s a hostile, cackling loner with a penchant for digging himself deeper into trouble. His personality provides the spark plug that propels the action.

David Koepp, a veteran screenwriter (“Jurassic Park”) and occasional director (“Ghost Town”), also fills the frame with plenty of energetic images. The cinematography by Mitchell Amundsen (“Wanted) is particularly strong, with its superior framing of the bikers during their speedy, serpentine routes. A running gag finds Wilee visualizing multiple options of how each imminent path could lead to disaster — one might knock over a baby stroller, another slam a pedestrian into the path of a UPS truck.

The single best visual is among the film’s most primitive. At times, Wilee (or his stunt double) executes a maneuver where his bike glides sideways across the pavement, momentarily hovering like Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder.

It’s typical of “Premium Rush,” a workmanlike film with fleeting moments that truly soar.

Joe’s year

2012 has been big for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He was integral to the success of “The Dark Knight Rises.” This fall, he’ll play a hit man who kills people sent from the future (his older self is played by Bruce Willis) in

“Looper,” “Lincoln,”