Review: Heady, High Concept 'Looper' Is A Dazzling Piece Of Sci-Fi Noir

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by Kevin Jagernauth
September 26, 2012 11:01 AM
4 Comments
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Welcome to 2044, Kansas. Time travel hasn't been invented yet, but in thirty years it will be. And when it is, it's immediately outlawed, with criminal organizations using it for their own ends -- namely, to dispose of bodies. In the future, thanks to the advances in tracking people, it becomes more difficult to make someone disappear. And thus there are Loopers. Sent 'assignments' from the future, they dispatch them in the present, get rid of the bodies, thus eliminating them from the future, for which efforts they get paid a modest sum. It's not the most honorable job, but considering how bad the economy has become, it's something.

Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He's a Looper and a junkie, but not without ambition. He's shoring up half his pay and learning French, with plans to move to France. He's got his eye on a hooker with a heart of gold (Piper Perabo), and he's good at his job, earning the compassionate attention of his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), who has traveled from 2074 to manage the Loopers for the crime syndicate. But Joe's job is a gig that has a finite timeframe. Eventually, his services will no longer be required and crime syndicate will "close the loop," sending his future self back (along with a hefty retirement payday) to be killed, thus cleaning any and all ties of their work together. But when Joe's older self (Bruce Willis) shows up, things don't go as planned and they both have to go on the run.

You know all this from the trailer and to say any more about Rian Johnson's heady, high-concept film would be spoiling its many surprises and unique story. But that doesn't mean we can't talk about the broad strokes of this frequently dazzling film, which may be one of the most original pieces of sci-fi to come down the pike in quite a while.

To start with, Johnson gives himself a helluva narrative mountain to climb, and much of the first chunk of the film is spent establishing the rules and boundaries of the world in which "Looper" takes place. And while it sometimes teeters on being overly exposition-heavy, Johnson does himself a couple of favors that keeps things moving and highly engaging. The first is giving the film a bit of a noir touch, provided by a sardonic voiceover by Joe who acts as a guide of sorts in the opening stages of the movie. The second is populating the edges with strong actors in smaller, but key roles with Paul Dano, Noah Segan and Garret Dillahunt giving weight, depth and dimension to seemingly inconsequential characters. (And no, we didn't forget Emily Blunt, but we can't really talk about her co-starring role without massive spoilers; needless to say, she's solid).

And of course, he gets two great turns out of his leads. Gordon-Levitt has never quite played a character like this, one of such dubious, selfish motivations who generally puts his own self-interest first. A junkie and second-rate gangster, he's not immediately the most likeable character. But that he manages to navigate the moral and emotional complexities of his character, particularly under some impressive prosthetics, is a true treat to watch. We'll have seen him a lot on the big screen by the end of 2012 ("Premium Rush," "The Dark Knight Rises" and the upcoming "Lincoln") but this is the performance that will likely stand out from the others. As for Willis, we haven't really seen him in a movie of this quality in a long time (the atypical "Moonrise Kingdom" aside). "Looper" serves as a reminder of just how terrific Willis can be with material that goes the extra mile.

But perhaps the most thrilling thing about "Looper" is watching Johnson really grow leaps and bounds as a filmmaker. "Brick" and "The Brothers Bloom" showed that Johnson has a smart, sharp eye, but never have his visuals, concept and narrative come together so harmoniously as they do here. He has always been (self-)conscious about composition, sometimes to a distracting degree (particulary with 'Bloom'), but here he is more judicious about simply creating interesting frames. And that selective approach means that when he does decide to get a bit flashy, the impact is tremendous -- there is one sequence in particular that created audible gasps in the audience we were with.

And while Johnson has always been a clever storyteller, it's with "Looper" that we see him becoming a smart filmmaker. It's a minor distinction, but an important one. This is not to disregard his previous efforts, but "Looper" feels like Johnson making a statement both as a writer and director, that he is ready to tell his original stories, but on bigger canvasses. Watching the film, we couldn't help but wonder what Christopher Nolan would think of the film, because at its best, it feels like the kind of high bar that filmmaker has delivered on. In many ways, "Looper" feels like Johnson's "The Prestige" before he makes his "Inception."

But that's not to say the film is without issues. After a pretty gangbusters first act, the pacing and flow stumble slightly in the middle as Johnson has to rearrange his puzzle pieces to set up the finale. And the conclusion -- which will likely become a big talking point -- is preceded by a big set piece that sort of works within the context of the characters and world, but feels ripped from a lesser, more derivative blockbuster flick. Tonally, "Looper" is a bit cold and distant as well, with a later shift towards bigger themes that never quite makes up for that gap.

"This time travel crap, just fries your brain like a egg...," Willis says at one point during the film. And certainly, for those looking to challenge the veracity and internal logic of "Looper," they could perhaps nitpick certain ideas or elements. But to do so is to focus on something that ultimately is just a structural element to a movie that is larger and more dynamic than that conceit. And Johnson himself wisely circumvents going down the rabbit hole of over-explaining the ins and outs and consequences of time travel -- he delivers enough to make the framework of "Looper" run smoothly.

Brainy and entertaining, there is simply nothing like "Looper" you've seen at the multiplex in quite some time and it's one you'll want to loop back see again after you leave the theater. [B+]

This is a reprint of our review from TIFF.

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4 Comments

  • Surprise123 | October 5, 2012 8:02 AMReply

    First and foremost, it should be noted that this was a co-production with the Communist Chinese government, so, of course, communist Chinese and Communist China could not be not be portrayed in a bad light. And, right on key, that's what we get. A movie about time travel in which Communist China is the center of the universe in the future, and America has descended into a dystopian hell hole. Gee, what a surprise.

    I guess that is what we can expect more and more of in the future from blockbuster films: after all, China only permits 34 foreign-made films to enter its film market; only films made in China as co-productions and subject to Chinese censorship are exempt from that number. Does this sound familiar anyone? China expects foreign companies to transfer their expertise to domestic Chinese production companies, while demanding that more and more Western studio films portray Communist Chinese and Communist China in a positive light. So, domestically, we'll continue to see good, bad and indifferent portrayals of America, but only positive portrayals of Communist China

    And, the film? Frankly, half way into the film, I realized that my movie ticket was subsidizing authoritarian Communist China's censorship, and walked out of the theater. That's the first time I've ever walked out of a movie.

    But the half I saw? Dreadful. In spite of an interesting time travel premise, and innovative visual design, the movie was confusing and focused far too much on images and sounds of guns killing people. Very loud bangs of guns going off again and again and again. Very loud bangs of doors closing and objects falling. A very poor attempt of creating suspense through loud noises.

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I usually like, was covered in weird prosthetic make-up (which was distracting), and was trying to channel Bruce Willis: it was not an effective performance. Bruce Willis, the co-star, well, I'll just say that he has never been one of my favorite actors.

    Also strange was that in a movie of over 25 credited male roles set in Kansas City, America, and Shanghai, China, only one male actor was of a race other Caucasian. What is up with that? Can the Communist Chinese not stomach depictions of African American or Asian American males? Or, possibly the Chinese version had more roles for Chinese males (people in China get a longer Sino-centric Director's cut of the movie than we see in the West). It should be noted that in the half movie I saw, there were three women depicted (a blockbuster film with hardly any women in it --yet another surprise): a charming African American waitress in Kansas City, an idealized loving Chinese wife living in Shanghai, and a somewhat callous, materialistic Caucasian prostitute, also in Kansas City. So, the filmmakers seem fine with depicting women of racial diversity, but men get short shrift. If you're male, you're Caucasian, or you're not in the film. Weird.

    And, finally, this movie received excellent reviews (94% positive review on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.3 out of 10 on IMDB). The great new movie "The Master" with Phillip Seymor Hoffman only got 85%. If I were a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist, I'd bet that the Chinese-American Co-Production company that made this film put the squeeze on Rotten Tomatoes, and hired people to post positive reviews on IMDB. Because that's the only way I can see this God awful mess getting such glowing reviews.

    This movie is a dog. Don't go and see it. And, don't subsidize Communist Chinese censorship.

  • Matt | October 3, 2012 10:31 AMReply

    Saw it last night. Great movie, it really delivered. My only gripe is that the ending breaks the cardinal rule of time travel, but whatever. Also, a quick correction to the article, it was Jeff Daniels who said the line about time travel frying your brain, not Willis.

  • jimbo | September 29, 2012 7:33 PMReply

    The first hour is really great, but after that, it becomes very derivative. It's Terminator! It's Boys From Brazil! It's The Exorcist! Shame, when the first half seemed really fresh.

  • Edward Davis | September 26, 2012 12:20 PMReply

    I can't say I loved this. At the same time, dude's an inventive writer and conceptualist and even his worst day is about 10x better than the average schmoe. I look forward to him fully nailing it next time.

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