About as awesome as time travel gets.
Looper is about a hitman living in the not-too-distant future of 2044. Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but it will be, which is exactly what makes our hitman so special, see. Instead of whacking people in the present like us primitive apes do now, his targets have been sent back in time on a silver platter. He bumps ’em off, takes care of the body, gets paid real nice by his employer (who’s also been sent back in time), and keeps the cycle going as such. Pretty easy gig, actually. Then one day, while getting ready for his next mark, he gets a surprise delivery in the form of his future self. Unfortunately, he’s still got a job to do, even if it is his future self. But since his future self is a lot craftier than he expected, he winds up botching the job and lets his future self get away. So with his employers out for blood and his future on the line, our hitman has to hunt his old ass down before both of ’em wind up dead or worse.
If I were to compile a list of film makers who should be working way more than they are, writer/director Rian Johnson would be right up there in the top three. It’s been a good six years since I saw his debut feature Brick, and ever since that glorious day I’ve been wondering what the hell happened? It was a one-of-a-kind movie, the likes of which should put a director on the map and open up doors for bigger and better things. Instead, it allowed him to make The Brothers Bloom three years later (haven’t seen it, heard mixed things) and direct a few episodes of Breaking Bad and Terriers (albeit some of the best episodes of Breaking Bad and Terriers). For the past six years, that’s what Rian Johnson’s been up to, and for a guy who should be a household name by now, that’s borderline unacceptable.
But now we have Looper, and this time, folks should take notice.
The first thing that’s great about Looper is the way it handles its two genres: one that’s a crap shoot, and one that’s getting old. By and large, when a movie’s dealing with time travel, it usually knows what it’s doing. Paying customers notice loopholes. It’s only when you write yourself into a corner and wind up with two bizarre seasons of LOST that things tend to get wonky. But the thing about time travel as a plot device is that it doesn’t get used all that often, and when it’s used successfully, it’s because it does more than just tie up loose ends. You still need a good story. Which is what brings us to the seemingly-unrelated hitman genre – a genre that we love; a genre that will never die; a genre that has been tackled from every angle imaginable only to be tackled again for good measure.
Separately, they put asses in seats and have given us some mighty fine stories along the way. But together? Now that’s something new. And in a world where ingenuity takes a backseat to profits, something new is a golden ticket.
In terms of how Looper utilizes time travel, it’s somewhere between how Back to the Future and 12 Monkeys used it. Identity crises, fixing the future by changing the past/present – you get the picture. And for the length of the first Act, that’s about the way things go. And trust me, that is not a bad thing. The first Act of this movie might be the best first Act of any movie I’ve seen all year.
At any rate, going off the trailer and the little that I’d known going in, I thought I had a decent idea of how this was all gonna play out. JGL goes after BW, BW gets JGL on his side, then the two of ’em turn the tables on their employers. Something like that. But lo and behold, that’s not how it goes at all. Much like the way Johnson reinvents the two genres he’s working with, he takes us down a road we never saw coming.
It’s interesting because I’ve actually been talking a lot about time travel movies as of late (tune into Best Movie Ever next week for more on that story), along with the different ways time travel’s been used effectively over the years. With that being said, there aren’t a whole lot of movies that swan dive into the complexities of time travel in such a gritty, violent fashion as this does. I guess The Terminator movies count, but those are more like a shallow dive, really. And not only does Looper take a totally inspired approach as far as its premise is concerned, but it’s the way Johnson structures it all that makes it so damn absorbing.
I dig the way he drives the plot by taking steps first, giving us a minute to catch up, and eventually confirming our suspicions through a bare minimum of exposition. What can I say, big fan of film makers who let the audience use their brain. And the system works because it keeps us up to speed without getting ahead of itself or confusing people to the point of aneurysms. Let me tell ya’, there are some flat-out ingenious ways that he uses time travel to his advantage in the first Act, but then Act Two comes around, and it only gets better. Like I said, it marks a total shift in the story we’re hearing and the pace at which it’s being told. Although as the wheels start turning and this crazy new world starts falling into place, that’s when it grabs ya’, and that’s when it gets great.
Speaking of crazy new worlds, this here is some vision of the near-future. The rich are richer and living it up, the poor are poorer and clogging up the streets. Drugs come in eyedrops, telekinesis comes over-the-counter, and for the right amount of silver, you can buy your own hoverbike that’ll probably just crap out on you. Yeah, we’re not that far into the future. 2044 is a very fitting time frame for this ’cause it’s a future that feels like it’s just out of reach. From both a visual and technological standpoint, it’s a prototype of bigger things, and it’s a believable one at that. Nor is there much emphasis on special effects, which also does wonders to keep things grounded.
And I love the way Johnson keeps things simple in that regard. The way targets pop up with no mess, no fuss? The stripped-down shotguns (aka: “blunderbusses”) that the hitmen make their living with? The fact that two-thirds of the movie takes place outside the futuristic city? That stuff is just great, especially when you consider that a lot of directors would take this as a golden opportunity to go ape on the CG. The guy’s got style, he makes it look gorgeous, and truth be told, CG would just cheapen it.
After all, he could have just gone all Benjamin Button on JGL and saved him three hours of makeup each morning. So glad he nixed that creepy-ass idea. Still, it takes a minute to get used to all the “young Bruce Willis” prosthetics they slapped on the guy, and the more I look at him in the photos here, the more he looks like a freak show. But not surprisingly, JGL is still great as always, it’s about the slickest role he’s ever had, and he carries himself in such a way that he actually makes the makeup work. He’s not so much doing a Bruce Willis impression as he is channeling Willis’ mannerisms. Once you get the smolder down, I guess everything else kinda falls into place.
And say what you will about The Expendables 2, plus all the other crap that IMDB says he was in this year, but I think 2012’s been a good one for Bruce Willis. As if is his fantastic and atypical turn in Moonrise Kingdom weren’t enough, he up and kills it in this, effortlessly renewing his Badass Card in the process. It always helps when he’s got good dialogue to work with – dialogue that gets oh-so close to nailing that 1970s-noir vibe it’s going for – but this is just further proof of what BW is capable of when he’s not surfing harrier jets.
Then there’s Jeff Daniels who’s a trip as JGL’s employer; Emily Blunt who rocks it, even though she could have cut back on all the F-bombs; and young newcomer Pierce Gagnon gives the big guys a run for their money. Sensing there might be some debate as to whether Gagnon is either ridiculously good or unintentionally hilarious, but I’m siding firmly with the former on this one. Solid cast all around, though, with some awfully solid characters to boot.
If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s the semi-bullshit observation that, as smart as Looper may be, there’s not much happening below the surface. It’s not using time travel as a metaphor for any kind of deep profundity (hook me up with a gold star for using that word in a sentence), so don’t expect to walk away with more than the satisfaction of having enjoyed yourself for two hours. But for those of us who are more than content with not learning a life lesson each time we hit the theater, Looper is not to be missed and a thoroughly enjoyable two hours at that. An absolute blast, royally well-executed on every darn front, and if someone ever told me it was the best time travel movie out there, I wouldn’t slap them in the face.
Not saying I agree, but this one’s keeper.