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Looper (2012)

looperDIRECTOR: Rian Johnson

CAST: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo, Noah Segan, Garret Dillahunt, Summer Qing, Pierce Gagnon

REVIEW:

Time travel is commonplace in sci-fi stories, sometimes used effectively, sometimes as a flimsy plot device.  With Looper, writer-director Rian Johnson finds a way to embrace the inherent paradoxes and incorporate them into a hard-hitting sci-fi thriller in ways that are intelligent and unpredictable.  Looper is not just a generic action flick with time travel as a plot device; it’s a smart movie that works on different levels as an action thriller, a sci-fi story, and even a morality play, and stimulates the adrenaline, the brain, and the heart.  It’s not a perfect film, but its narrative is engaging, involving, and thoughtful, and doesn’t shy away from a tragic vein.

In 2044 Kansas, apart from a few low-key touches (some people jet about on flying speeder bikes and sport futuristic-looking guns), things don’t look that much different from today.  Crime syndicates are gaining power, but thirty more years, into the 2070s, and they are virtually all-powerful.  However, future technology makes it nearly impossible to dispose of a body, so the syndicates have found a creative way around this.  When the gangs of 2070 want to eliminate someone, they strap a payment of silver bars to his body, toss him in a time machine, and throw him back to 2044, where a “looper”, a hitman hired by the syndicates to dispose of victims sent from the future, is waiting to blow them away the second they materialize.  The looper pockets the silver and is on his way.  It’s an efficient enough occupation for a hired killer, but it comes with a big catch.  Time travel has been outlawed in the future, and so determined are the syndicates to safeguard the secrecy of their operations that when a looper’s contract is up, his older self is sent back in time to be executed by his younger self…”closing the loop”.  The young looper pockets his last, biggest payment of silver, and lives out his remaining thirty years however he wants, but knowing his clock is ticking.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of several loopers in the small crime ring run by Abe (Jeff Daniels), and is content to spend his days executing the occasional condemned man, hitting the nightclubs, doing drugs, visiting his stripper girlfriend (Piper Perabo), and quietly hoarding his silver and learning French with plans to eventually flee the looper life and live in style in France.  But there are disturbing rumors filtering back from the future, of a mysterious crime lord called The Rainmaker, who has seized control of all the crime syndicates and is systematically executing all loopers.  One day, Joe makes the mistake of harboring a friend and fellow looper, Seth (Paul Dano), who couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger when confronted with his old self.  Soon after, Joe is put in the same dilemma and makes the same mistake, allowing Old Joe (Bruce Willis) to escape and putting both Joes on the run from Abe and his henchmen.  But Old Joe isn’t just trying to stay alive; he is a man on a mission, believing he can find and kill the boy who will become The Rainmaker and stop future tragedies from happening.  This leads both Joes to a collision course on a remote farm where Sara (Emily Blunt) lives alone with her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who may or may not be who Old Joe is looking for.

While the set-up requires a little explanation (provided by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s voiceover narration), Looper is not a labrynthine maze of twists and turns to the point where it’s difficult to follow.  That said, it requires a little concentration and attention, and goes in some unpredictable directions.  It has its fair share of action, but it’s less a simple action shoot-em-up and more a smart rumination on the inherent paradoxes of time travel and the ethical dilemmas it can bring.  There is a well-known hypothetical scenario: if you go back in time to 1889 Austria and stand before the crib containing the infant Adolf Hitler, would you be able to murder a baby?  Old Joe’s mission to hunt down and eliminate the child who will become The Rainmaker recalls this ethical dilemma, and it’s a tough question without an easy answer.  Is a child irrevocably fated to grow up evil, or can his nature be changed by what happens (or doesn’t happen) to him?  Even if Cid is The Rainmaker….does he have to be?

Rian Johnson’s vision of the not-too-distant future is subtle and low-key and avoids the CGI overdose some movies indulge in.  In fact, special effects are used sparingly, and there are only little touches to remind us that the world we’re in is slightly futuristic.  This low-key approach allows the focus to be on the well-developed characters and their moral dilemmas.  There’s plenty of murky moral gray area to be found here.  Neither the young or old Joe is a heroic figure; the younger is a hired killer, and the older is willing to commit disturbing actions in a desperate bid to save his future self.  It’s hard to support a man who will shoot a child in cold blood, but we get enough flashbacks (or flashes forward) of Old Joe’s life with his wife (Summer Qing) for us to understand his desperation to change the future by any means necessary, even if those means are abhorrent.  As for young Joe, his initial journey to the farm has nothing to do with concern for Sara or Cid, but merely to save his own skin.  But by the end, perhaps young Joe has found something he cares about too.

Joseph Gordon LevittLooper is anchored by two solid lead performances.  The makeup and prosthetics Joseph Gordon-Levitt dons in an attempt to look more like Bruce Willis is occasionally a little distracting, but Gordon-Levitt echoes Willis’ mannerisms, expressions, and speaking style enough to make us buy the two Joes as the same person, which is crucial to the premise.  As a hitman and a drug addict, Joe is hardly a noble figure, yet partly because he’s played by the naturally likable Gordon-Levitt, we find ourselves rooting for him anyway, even if he’s not a conventional “good guy” (which is eventually validated when he turns out to have a sliver of a conscience).  2012 was a busy year for Gordon-Levitt, who also played a Gotham City cop in The Dark Knight Risesa harried bicycle messenger in Premium Rushand the son of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, but of his various roles of the year, Looper is easily his best and most substantial.  And while Gordon-Levitt might be playing more against type, this isn’t quite your run-of-the-mill Bruce Willis role either.  For one, while Willis is first-billed, that has more to do with his star status than his prominence in the story; Gordon-Levitt is the real lead, and Willis plays a smaller supporting role.  We get a bit of the to-be-expected Willis ass-kicking, but Old Joe is a far more morally ambiguous figure than the wisecracking action heroes Willis is best-known for.  In fact, while Young Joe might be an anti-hero, there’s times when Old Joe is practically the villain, or at least the antagonist.  This isn’t the smart-ass John McClane, but a haunted, tormented figure resorting to terrible actions in a desperate bid to save what he’s lost (or is destined to lose).  This is Gordon-Levitt and Willis’ show (heavier on Gordon-Levitt), but strong supporting performances come from Emily Blunt and child actor Pierce Gagnon, who does a credible job showing both light and dark sides to Cid.  At times, he’s a normal, sympathetic child, but at others, we glimpse his dangerous potential.  Gagnon holds his own alongside his adult co-stars, and at times it’s fair to say he steals scenes from them.  Jeff Daniels plays against type as the outwardly affable crime boss Abe, who seems more like a friendly, laidback uncle than a gangster…until you fail him.

Perhaps the most daring aspect of Looper is the way it chooses to resolve its dilemma.  The ending, while not necessarily a 100% downer, is more downbeat than a conventional action flick would wrap things up, and unlocks a vein of tragedy, but it also plays along with the implacable, hard-headed logic Johnson has infused his screenplay with all along.  The climax won’t satisfy everyone, but in a way it’s respectable to see a movie that doesn’t chicken out for a standard-issue happy ending and goes where it wants to go.

Looper won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s thought-provoking, provides enough action to engage mainstream viewers, throws in plenty of suspense and tension, poses tough moral dilemmas that it doesn’t cop out of, and has an effective emotional component.  It’s not the most “feel good” movie experience to be found, but it’s a smart and engaging one, and worth viewing.

* * * 1/2

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