Thursday, October 4, 2012

Looper (**)

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson

Looper certainly looks cool and flashy in all the ways a movie needs to be in order to be a hit in contemporary Hollywood fashion. I'm sure it fancies itself a sort of modern day Blade Runner, with it's future dystopian setting and moral ambiguity. Like Blade Runner and an earlier film by Looper director Rian Johnson, Brick, this film borrows a lot from film noir: cold cynical protagonist, over-complicated plot. And it's got some pretty good performances from two of Hollywood's finest young talents (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt), as well as one of it's most consistently fantastic veterans (Bruce Willis). But there's still a lot about Looper that just didn't work for me, and most of that lies in its screenplay.

Its screenplay takes place in 2044, where the world is definitely more advanced technology, but seems even more depressed. Rian Johnson obviously doesn't have a lot of hope for the Obama Administration turning the economy around. There are two specific future changes that happen, though, that are important to the story. One, a select few people have developed telekinetic powers ("TK'ing") - how this has happened is never explained. Two, the technology to travel back in time gets created sometime in the 2070's. Outlawed almost instantly, time travel is used almost exclusively by organized crime syndicates to send offenders back in time where they will land in a field 30 years in the past (to 2044, the year our movie takes place) to be shot and killed by hired guns called "loopers". No murder evidence, it's the perfect crime.

The "looper" that we follow is named Joe (Gordon-Levitt). He's great at his job, but he has a tough drug habit (there's a new form of high-concept drugs taken through eye drops, and boy does he put it to use) and is stashing money away for a big runaway trip. Joe explains early on that there comes a time in every looper's cycle where he must "close the loop", in which your future self is sent back to get killed by you. The closed looper is given a huge payday and gets to enjoy the next thirty years of his life. There are very serious consequences for not closing your loop, which Joe learns quickly when he lets his future self (played by Willis) manhandle him and escape before he's able to shoot him.

The older Joe comes with news of a harsh new crime boss from the future called The Rainmaker, whose viciousness knows no ends and has now made it his plan to close all of the loops. Old Joe wants to hunt down the Rainmaker and kill him before he gets a chance to kill so many people. Unabashed, Joe is determined to track down his older self and close the loop. To hell with the doom of the future. It's about the promise of the present. But several times he finds himself face-to-face with himself, 30 years ahead, and keeps getting outsmarted and out-muscled by Old Joe. Halfway through the film, Joe finds himself on a farm home owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), cause he knows that this is a house in which Old Joe will come in to track down a possible future Rainmaker. When Joe learns that Sara is living there with her three-year-old son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), he realizes that this is exactly where Old Joe will soon be heading.

This movie moves well and doesn't have a single boring moment. It even includes a scene very early in the story (where you find out what happens to loopers that don't close their loops) that is pretty close to brilliant. But this is a screenplay which undermines all of its major characters in ways that I found irreversible. Joe, the film's protagonist, isn't given any real room to shine, instead passively reacting to all the bumps and bruises along the way. He doesn't even stand much of a chance against the 30-years-older version of himself in a fight, which is unfortunate for someone who considers themselves a talented professional killer. Even his major moment by the film's end comes requires him to be a bit emasculated (to say the least).

Old Joe is a fine enough character, bull-headed and a bit selfish. But in his hunt to find the future Rainmaker, he has to spend a good amount of the film hunting down small children to murder - which, I must say, makes it pretty hard to empathize with. Not to mention the body count he racks up on adults. For someone bent on stopping a killer, he doesn't seem much interested in those he thoughtlessly murders. As for Sara, her character arc would be a lot stronger if it wasn't pigeonholed completely into the second half of the film. We've already been watching over an hour before she even arrives. To invest any kind of relationship with her and Cid, a film needs more than a few rushed, over-stuffed pieces of exposition to make up for lost time. Especially for a film that is already inherently complicated.

In its dealing with time travel, it does a lot by not trying to explain it too much. It's occasionally frustrating, but  I appreciate that more than being drowned in time travel minutia. I like Rian Johnson a lot. I thought Brick was an exciting, engrossing tale even without its creative references to the old film noir movies of the 1940's. Looper definitely delivers on that promise, but mostly visually. Simply speaking, it's screenplay is a mess. I realize that I'm in the minority with that opinion. It's winning glowing reviews for being a great new twist on science fiction action movies. I guess it is. But I didn't find myself compelled with this collection of annoying people. This is as good a time as any to mention that Jeff Daniels plays Abe, a man the mob sent from the future to run the loopers. Its inspired casting, even if the film never really takes advantage of the greatness of Daniels in any meaningful, entertaining way. Again, another example where this film undermines itself.

No comments: