Friday, September 28, 2012

Not What You Expected: Looper

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Writer and director Rian Johnson, (someone I think I should marry just because, seriously, Rian and Rain?), came out of the gate strong with the movie Brick, a flick I appreciated more than I liked, finding its placement of noir style and dialogue into the mouths of babes a little grating after a while. He stumbled with his second feature, The Brothers Bloom, an uneven period comedy, but has come back strong with Looper, his third film, a violent sci-fi story about time travel. And really, that only touches the surface of its subject matter.

I went into the movie a little annoyed with it. I found the stills and trailer featuring star Joseph Gordon-Levitt made up to look like a young Bruce Willis kind of laughable, and feared it would be nothing but a distraction.

And honestly, it is...for about 15 minutes, until the real Bruce Willis appears, and you start to appreciate the impersonation Levitt is actually doing. (Which, for the record, would have been good enough without the CG and make-up.)

Here's the thing: Looper isn't the movie I thought it would be. I'd avoided reviews, and only watched one trailer, so as far as I could tell going into it, it was going to be a twisty time travel movie about young Bruce Willis hunting old Bruce Willis, who had been sent back from the future to be killed by young Bruce Willis. Shootings, chases; chases, shootings; maybe some half-naked women.

And, indeed, the movie is that. Partially. But about halfway through, it starts to go in a different and unexpected direction, and I was genuinely surprised by it. It's not a "twist," per se, but in the interest of possibly retaining that element of surprise for someone else out there, I'm going to avoid talking about the movie's second half.

As for that first half: It's good, if somewhat grim. Set in a future where time-travel hasn't yet been invented, but will be invented in that future's future, life is pretty bleak. The homeless populate the streets, (and, somewhat amusingly, are often referred to as "hobos"). No one really seems to be living the high life, but "loopers" come close.

While time travel will be invented in the future, it will also be outlawed, and you know what that means: Only the outlaws will use time travel. In that future, the criminal syndicate will use time travel as a form of assassination. Apparently, killing someone in the future is hard because of...body tracking? Or something? (It's best not to think too hard about it.) So, instead, they send their victims back through time, where they are then killed by assassins known as "loopers," who kill and dispose of the bodies, in exchange for nice bars of silver.

Joseph Gordon Levitt is Joe, a looper who's also got a bit of a drug problem, and big dreams of visiting France.

Of course, time travel murder does have its potential problems, one of them being that eventually, the loopers of the present will be the loopers of the future, and they need to be gotten rid of, too, "closing the loop." And sometimes, a looper ends up having to assassinate himself.

Which is what happens to Joe...or at least what's supposed to happen, until old Joe knocks out young Joe, and goes on the run. Old Joe wants to change his future, so that he can avoid some of the tragedies he goes, went, I mean, is going to go through?

If you try to think to hard about this time travel stuff, it'll fry your brain, something that is dutifully noted by Abe (Jeff Daniels), the crime lord sent from the future to make sure the loopers of the present play by the rules. And letting a future looper live in the past isn't playing by the rules.

The scenes between Levitt and Willis are probably the film's funnest moments, but Jeff Daniels runs a close second, with his deadpan observations that the young people of the present are simply aping styles of the past--emulating movies that in turn were just emulating other movies--instead of doing something new.

And I suppose that's a criticism that could be waged against Looper itself. One can't help but think of other time travel movies when watching it, most specifically the Terminator series--especially when a major character is named Sara, and Garret Dillahunt of "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" shows up as a menacing henchman.

Yes, it is a bit derivative, and if you start to think about the whole "looper" set-up at all, it starts to fall apart. (Why send the people back alive? Who cares if the people that are sent back in time escape? Why would the mob ever risk having a looper assassinate himself? Etc.)

But once the movie gets to its second half, the time travel stuff becomes a mere set-up for some larger issues involving fate, good and evil, and accepting one's past...and future. And Looper's emotional pay-offs are something I never would have predicted.

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