by Steve Habrat
For quite some time, I’ve been griping about the never-ending stream of recycled ideas coming out of Hollywood over the past few years. I’d say that one of the most original films I’ve seen recently is without question Christopher Nolan’s 2010 mind-boggler Inception, a film that left me speechless after my first viewing. Well, now I can add writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper to the short list of wholly original films. Fresh but flawed, Looper is truly something you’ve never seen before, a confident science-fiction vision that has the stones to pat itself on the back in the first fifteen minutes. While I believe that Looper is a little too hasty to congratulate itself for breathing new life into science fiction, the film’s opening hour is near classic levels. It’s incredibly riveting, funny, thrilling, and just begging to be revisited so the viewer can piece the brainy plot together. Unfortunately folks, it is too good to last and Looper does hit a snag in its second half, leaving Johnson in a scramble to recover. The second half of Looper is shockingly comatose, shifting the focus off the nifty time travel and onto a little boy and his mother, two characters who fail to draw the viewer in the way that stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt do early on. Luckily, the ending is somewhat of a recovery but it still leaves us feeling a bit empty.
In the year 2074, time travel exists but is instantly outlawed. Time travel is secretly controlled by a mob organization in Shanghai and is led by a mysterious figure called the Rainmaker. This organization captures individuals they want wiped off the map and they send them to the year 2044, where hitmen known as “loopers” kill the individual and then dispose of the body. Joseph Simmons (Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) happens to be a looper in Kansas City, a dystopia gangland controlled by Abe (Played by Jeff Daniels), a man sent from the future to run the looper organization in 2044. Joe and his looper buddies quietly carry out their assassinations by day and by night, they hang out in Abe’s nightclub where they take recreational drugs through eye drops and flirt with the beautiful dancers. While loopers appear to live the high life, their bosses can suddenly end their contract, which means they send an older version of the looper through time to the younger version to be killed off, which is known as “closing a loop.” After Joe’s friend Seth (Played by Paul Dano) fails to “close his loop,” he comes to Joe’s apartment in a panic and asks Joe to hide him. Joe agrees to hide Seth but is soon convinced by Abe to give him up. Thinking the mess is behind him, Joe heads out to wait for his target to arrive. To his horror, his next target is the older version of himself (Played by Bruce Willis). The older Joe manages to escape and sets out to settle a nasty personal score. As the younger Joe frantically searches for the older version, Abe’s personal army known as “gatmen” begin to close in.
Certainly not the easiest film to sum up, Looper is chock full of twists and turns that will have your brain swimming, at least at first. The opening introduction is truly something to marvel at as Johnson’s camera explores this rusty, unglamorous vision of the future where cell phones are transparent and hovering motorcycles exist. It is in these opening moments, when Joe and his friends zip through the city streets in a sports car, almost mowing homeless people over, that I was vaguely reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The comparison quickly fades and we are left with a completely original story with plenty of savage wit and blood-drenched violence. Johnson does his best to not have to pause and explain plot points to the viewer, something that films of this sort often are forced to do. He manages to find a way to let the story naturally play out with only a small assistance from Joe’s voiceover. The film also tells us that there are individuals that have suffered genetic mutation and posses telekinetic powers. The film never fully elaborates on this aspect of the story but it becomes increasingly important as the film advances towards the climax. The second half of the film introduces us to isolated farmer named Sara (Played by Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid (Played by Pierce Gagnon), who are forced to take in the younger Joe, who is hiding out from Abe. It is on Sara’s farm where you may find some yawns making their way into the story.
Judging from Looper’s trailer, you’d think the film would be heavy on action but you are in for a surprise. Looper puts more effort into exhaustively developing its main characters. This is all well and good with Willis and Gordon-Levitt but when the film shifts to Blunt and Gagnon, the film is sent into a slump. Gordon-Levitt continues to prove why he is one of the most talented men in Hollywood as Joe. A mumbling junkie who coldly carries out his work, Joe is a young man heading for an unknown disaster. We feel it in these early scenes but we can never put our fingers on what that disaster is. Joe is busy stock piling all the silver bars he is paid for his assassinations and studying up on his French so that he can retire from being a looper and move to France. He mimics Willis almost perfectly, with a little help from subtle prosthetics glued to his face. In the early scenes, away from Willis and Blunt, Gordon-Levitt has a groove that I was sure wouldn’t be thrown off. Then he comes face to face with the even colder Willis, who has some nasty business to attend to that I will not ruin here. Trust me when I say, his business got some nervous rustles and uncomfortable twitches from the audience in my screening. The scenes where Willis and Gordon-Levitt are forced to come face to face don’t seem to have the zing that Johnson thinks they do. They are devoid of any real chemistry that would make these exchanges fun. They are almost, dare I say, flat! Luckily, Johnson separates them and lets them shine on their own
Then we have beautiful Blunt, a moderately talented actress who always seems to fly just under the radar. She has never really delivered a performance that has absolutely floored me and here, she is really no different, no matter how much raw emotion she chooses to pour into her brooding role. Similarly to Willis, she can’t really seem to find a groove with Gordon-Levitt even if the two are demanded to spark up a romance. Surprisingly, the young Gagnon is another standout as the lovable tyke Cid who can turn into a monster in the blink of an eye (we will leave it at that for fear of spoilers). While there are brief moments where Sara and Cid’s story will have you at the edge of your seat, they just failed to make me really care about them and trust me, I wanted to. Looper also makes the grave mistake of under-using Paul Dano as the hotshot Seth. Johnson only hands him a small number of scenes before he vanishes. The same thing happens with Jeff Daniels, who is here on an extended cameo. While memorable, I wished he would have remained in the action a bit more than he does. He hands his dirty work off to the screw-up gatman Kid Blue (Played by Noah Segan), a character that is more for comic relief than true menace.
While I hesitate to really call Looper a mediocre movie, I was certainly hoping for more consistency. Instead, it gets switched on to autopilot before the furious climatic confrontation. While the arching plot is relatively easy to follow, Looper leaves a lot on the viewer’s plate to chew on and debate. I’m still trying to piece everything within the picture together and make sense of every little plot point that Johnson hands us. Despite the frustrating stand still in the middle of the film, there are moments where we are sucked back in and overtaken by the early thrill, especially when the film switches from Sara’s farm back into the city. Overall, I admire the ambition and I certainly have to give it up for the premise, as it truly is one of a kind. I commend Johnson for trying to do something new and I even have to give TriStar credit for taking a risk on Looper. Despite the flaws, Looper is still a minor triumph for science fiction and I am left wanting quite a bit more from Rian Johnson.