Time-Travel Thriller Looper Should Make Its Director a Hollywood Player
Looper, a clever and action-packed heartland version of The Terminator, may not make as much sense as it should, but as the Bruce Willis character says in a diner, “I don’t want to talk about time travel [crap]. If we do, we’ll be here all day, making diagrams with straws.”
Fine. So: Looper isn’t taking itself too seriously, and nor should we. Rian Johnson’s film, set mostly in 2044 Kansas, is loads of fun, making judicious use of special effects (with its rusty hovercycles and ragged slums it looks more like Repo Man than Blade Runner), and it has some cool twists.
Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play the same character at two stages of life. As a man of about 30, Joe is a hired assassin and a junkie who gets high by sprinkling drugs on his eyeballs with a dropper. In 2074, his masters in a massive crime syndicate send him hooded, bound figures that he simply arranges to shoot at a given spot at a given time. Joe owes his job to temporal outsourcing -- in 2074, due to tagging techniques, it’s too hard to get rid of dead bodies but Joe is living before that technology exists.
When a friend (Paul Dano) is assigned to kill his own self from 30 years in the future, we learn that these “loopers,” as the hit men are called, are being assigned to “close the loop” by exterminating the future versions of themselves. A mob boss (a quietly scary Jeff Daniels) sent back from the future to monitor these roving assassins convinces Joe that it’s best not to tangle with the crime lords’ idea of how time should play out. Nevertheless, when Willis’s Old Joe, in 2074, manages to alter the circumstances when he is kidnapped and sent back in time for assassination, younger Joe hesitates and allows Old Joe to escape in the cane fields of Kansas.
What’s great about the film is how many crazy angles of conflict it devises: Joe is being chased by a fellow looper, and both of them are trying to terminate old Joe, though young Joe, as you might expect, is also curious to hear from old Joe some advice about what’s going to happen in the future. And in the second half, the tension gets another boost when Johnson brings in a tough young woman (England’s Emily Blunt, who is surprisingly convincing as a no-nonsense frontier woman) who is looking after a small child who might, when he grows up, turn out to be the shadowy criminal mastermind known only as the Rainmaker. Old Joe wants to kill the boy because he might be the Rainmaker, but young Joe thinks saving the kid and changing his path might be possible.
Discussing the aspects of the story that don’t seem to add up would involve giving away too much, but even with these problematic aspects the movie is exciting, twisty, and vivid. Johnson, a young writer-director and hotshot whose previous low-budget films were Brick and The Brothers Bloom, has a fresh notion about bringing the feel of the hardboiled urban noir to the open spaces of the plains. The farmland looks as menacing here as it did in North by Northwest.
Johnson also writes smart, tough, darkly ironic dialogue, often delivered in a voiceover reminiscent of a Raymond Chandler movie (or of Blade Runner) that goes perfectly with the sense of a pitiless landscape. Young Joe says things like, “Now he runs the city. Any other city, that would be impressive.” His overseer, the Daniels character, tells him, “I cleaned you up and put a gun in your hand. I gave you something that was yours,” as though this was the greatest gift a father figure could give a young fella. When Daniels is asked whether he intends to kill another man, he says, “Not if we can help it.” It turns out that there isn’t a lot of sentimentality in the world of professional killers.
Engaging as all this cat-and-mousing is, and entertaining as the many gunfights are, the movie opens up into something bigger and bolder as it goes along, with a plot development that is perfectly set up by foreshadowing and yet is unexpected and potent. The dry self-awareness of Willis’s delivery (something the more earnest and anguished Gordon-Levitt would have done well to have imitated) goes a long way toward bringing some of the more fanciful elements down to earth, and the climax is an exciting payoff. Get used to the name Rian Johnson: This film is a major breakthrough that should make him a player in Hollywood.
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