Here’s a Sci-Fi thriller for fans of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis that isn’t cheesy, or cheeky or childish. And it’s created within a realm of realism that might make you think time travel is believable. While it is reminiscent of 12 Monkeys (1995), Terminator (1984), Logan’s Run (1975) and Steven King novels, writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick (2005), The Brothers Bloom (2008)) puts enough sting and Jean Luc Godard into Looper to make it more than just another contemporary film noir flick loaded with all-talk-and-no-show voice-over. Looper lives up to expectations, which is surprising considering that movies that receive this amount of marketing are too often being oversold because of their underdeveloped scripts. And by Godard (a galaxy in a cup of coffee, from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)) I mean the film is coated with an attention to film artistry that suggests an attempt is being made to have fun with film form but to do so in a way that layers the film with meaning beyond good guy versus bad. Which is usually what makes the better films stick around with us long after the popcorn is gone.
The Story: Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a ‘looper.’ These are generally mobster-like hitmen who do the dirty work in the present—the year 2047—for mob bosses who teleport their victims through time from 30 years in the future. All goes according to gangster-like plans until one of Joe’s victims is future self (played by Willis).
The Goods: When these victims arrive, usually hooded with what looks like a pillow case and wearing the same non-descript Dickies-type wardrobe, they are greeted by the likes of mob staff, like Joe, who immediately blow the dudes away with a tube-like shotgun called a blunderbuss. It’s never fully explained why but it’s mentioned in voice-over by Joe that getting rid of someone by sending them to the past eliminates the need to dispose of the evidence in the future’s present. The voice-over from our main character, and the urban setting adds that 1940’s noir. And when victims arrive via a stylish flash-cut “beaming down” from the future, they do so with such out-of-the-norm abruptness that it’s almost paranormal.
With all the noirish style aside, the film is essentially about a gang member in the mob (there’s even a post-modern gangster film nod to The Godfather (1972) as all of Joe’s killing is done outside of the city on a specific plot of land near corn fields, or as we see later, sugar cane fields. That duality and contrast of city and country, urban and rural, international and domestic, claustrophobic and wide-open, rich and poor adds tremendous depth to Looper and our main characters—young Joe and old Joe—who are nearly as polar as the rest of the film. Each version of the man hovers between heaven and hell just long enough to be James Dean.
So when the young Joe sees himself he naturally freezes allowing for the old Joe to escape. Thus begins a Looper y Looper man-hunt and chase that divides the second act into a well-paced zigzagging of each man’s sudden goals and desires. It’s a brilliant way to get an audience through what is generally considered the second and longest of three acts. I’ll save the details for your enjoyment but what we see for most of the middle is a blending of genres within sci-fi, most particularly the horror genre, that again gives Looper additional intensity and panache.
Outside of the palpable grittiness of the Joes’ (plural) darkest moments, is the self-reflexivity of the film, the Godard of the film when the dialogue between the two Joes is referencing the movie itself. Referencing time travel and talking about it is senseless, trying to figure it out, “we could draw diagrams with straws all day,” is partly talking about the film’s plot and structure because it can get pretty confusing. But at the end of the day the movie has a well-focused story, and each character finds their inner-character. Whether that’s Good or bad. Describing time travel or talking about it is pretty senseless anyway. The comparison of time to the outside tortilla layer of a burrito in Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1988) probably wins that award. But when you can tie the complexity of that subject into the complexity of your film, that’s just genius.
The Flaws: He wears that brown jacket for a reason. I’m talking about Willis. So that we may remember him like that from Pulp Fiction (1994). Or so that’s what I’m thinking and what an audience might think if we’ve seen those other Bruce Willis movies. And that’s the main rub here, that I don’t necessarily see Joe as an older version of himself. I just see Bruce Willis. And when he’s toting shotguns and machine guns it’s Bruce Willis as John McClain from the Die Hard (1988) franchise. It’s enough of a distraction to pollute the art and fun of Loopers.
You can see the ending coming more than you want to but ironically it’s the voice over that sort of kills it…only because it has become cliché to book-end your film with voice-over or at least carry through the entire film with voice-over. It’s an addictive thing that VO and not necessarily always a good thing. I don’t mind it so much here because Looper references films of the past, and film history, by conjuring up all those shadowy G-men films of the 1940’s and 50’s. But it’s quite possible that it does itself in, in the end, because of the voice-over.
While the premise is really intriguing at times I had to just take a second to think things through. It’s not confusing at all but it hints at something on a grand scale much the way The Matrix (1999) does without really showing it. For instance the mob boss, or gangsters of the future, that send their victims to the past, we never see them like we see them in The Godfather or Goodfellas (1990). Instead we have representations of, or proxies of these instigators from the future. In doing that the film treads on that legendary frame of reference that I think Matrix sequels suffer from. The one, the leader, the chosen one, the messiah figure…which can either make or break a film. Granted, it’s treated with cleverness here that adds a huge amount of unsuspecting emotion but it also puts the film in the deep end, presenting itself as pseudo profound, or trying too hard, with an unknown threat that is mostly talked about. I think it has become a flaw of movie scripts that characters revert to talking about “monsters” and really bad guys without showing us them (though it must be understood that Looper does tackle that dilemma in a clever way); often it’s due to the restraints of time or budget, unlike how a Lord of the Rings, for example, can do it, in showing us the details from a novel’s long descriptions.
The Call: But Looper is not adapted from a novel. It’s from the mind of director Rian Johnson and it’s pretty darn good, especially when compared to the general fare being offered at the movies. Spend the ten. There’s no better film out there right now, and quite honestly there hasn’t been one this thoughtful in a while. Or this violent.
Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content. Running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes. Seeing Jeff Daniels and Gordon-Levitt together again reminded me of that neat little indie film The Lookout (2007). Eye contacts and make-up have us thinking Johnson casted an unknown to star alongside Willis when all along it’s JGL. And not since Bonnie and Clyde (1968) has violence been this artistic. I’m exaggerating, but not really.
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