Looper (2012)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segen, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels, Pierce Gagnon, Qing Xu, Tracie Thoms, Garrett Dillahunt, Frank Brennan, Nick Gomez, Marcus Hester.

Director: Rian Johnson
Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content.)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Date: September 28, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $TBD

DMG Entertainment, Endgame Entertainment, FilmDistrict, Ram Bergman Productions, and TriStar Pictures.

Written by: Rian Johnson.

This review was originally published via The Rogue Valley Messenger.
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★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)

Now is the time.  Time for Bruce Willis to restart his career.  Time for Rian Johnson to be recognized as a truly inventive filmmaker, with an original and unique voice.  And time for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to become a front-line, A-list superstar.  Looper, in a perfect world, will make all of these things come true because this is a film that captivates you while it shocks you, keeps you guessing from bell to bell, and delivers an engrossing, unflinchingly violent landscape for which time travel and science-fiction conventions get tossed on their ear.  Hands down, Looper is one of 2012′s finest and most ambitious films.

Opening in 2044 Kansas, we meet Joe (Gordon-Levitt), a Looper who is biding his time, with a powerful assault rifle known as a Blunderbuss cocked and at the ready, standing in front of a meticulously laid out plastic sheet.  As he waits, he checks his pocketwatch.  Then suddenly, a hooded person materializes on the plastic on the absolute second the Looper is told he will appear.  One immediate killshot later, Joe turns his victim over, collects his payment in silver bars, and disposes of the body down an incinerator.  All in a days work for a Looper like Joe.

Loopers are former criminals, whose executions are intertwined with a problem some 30 years in the future; namely, time travel.  By 2074, time travel has been invented, realized, misused, and outlawed.  The use of it however has been co-opted by criminals and mob bosses, who contract with the Loopers in 2044 to execute those they want dead and gone.  The life of a Looper is a good one for awhile; expensive sports cars are common and those silver bars can add up to a fairly substantial amount of wealth and prosperity.  One inevitable exists in a Looper’s line of work however.  The day you effectively “close the loop.”

With hoods covering the identities of those assigned for execution, you have no idea who you have gunned down.  When you turn the victim over, if your silver bars have been replaced with gold bars, you have executed yourself.  This is accepted by all Loopers and when your loop is closed, you receive a substantial payday and 30 protected years to live whatever life you wish to have.  When those 30 years are up, with your loop already having been closed, you disappear.

As one colleague of Joe’s finds out, it can be an egregious mistake to allow your future self to escape, except that it happens to Joe, when his older future self (Willis) is able to outwit the younger Joe and survive.  Younger Joe is a reckless and destructive personality, ingesting drugs via eyedrops, visiting a stripper (Piper Perabo) whenever he needs companionship, and moving from job to job.  Older Joe has eradicated his demons, is deeply in love with his wife (Qing Xu) and does not want to be closed upon.  Naturally the two Joes become pitted against one another, but it is in these moments that Rian Johnson takes his film and screenplay in wildly divergent paths, leaving motivations always questioned and the morality of those before us always in doubt.

Looper offers a bevy of surprises, including an entire second half arc that as best I can tell, has mostly been ignored in the film’s marketing and promotion.  Involving Emily Blunt and a stunning new child actor Pierce Gagnon, Looper becomes even deeper, dark, and conflicted.  Blunt’s offer to assist and shelter Younger Joe comes with serious consequences when Older Joe makes some bold and stark decisions on how he must best stave off those who want him killed.  There are moments that simply cause your mouth to fall open in Looper and Rian Johnson is so committed and so confident in this world he has created, he trusts that you will accept what he gives you.  And I sat mesmerized.

Complaints may be volleyed over the decision to use makeup effects on Joseph Gordon-Levitt to make him resemble a 30-years younger Bruce Willis, but after the initial recognition that Gordon-Levitt looks a bit different, his performance is so strong and so perfect, you could care less.  A huge fan of Gordon-Levitt, I still shake my fist over the Academy’s failure to nominate him for last year’s 50/50, he has mastered Bruce Willis to a -T-.  Every mannerism, scowl, cutting of the eyes, rhythm and cadence in his lower-octave gravelly speaking voice is transported from Willis to Gordon-Levitt and Looper benefits exponentially because of it.  Willis is strong as well, giving a little back to Gordon-Levitt’s performance and ensuring that the bridges between Younger Joe and Older Joe are built about as sturdy as they can be.

While many may be expecting that Looper is already fairly bleak and grim based on its premise, Johnson goes dark and violent, not worrying how his film will be perceived.  Although the films are wildly different in subject matter and tone, I was reminded at times of Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive, in how unrepentant both films are in telling the story they want to tell in the manner in which they choose to do it. When Bruce Willis is forced to make a horrible decision to stay alive, we expect one result and get something we could never fathom.  Johnson smartly does not try to make one Joe better than the other, or have them wear white and black to define one as good or the other as evil.

Shot for a relatively low $30 million budget, Rian Johnson’s third film (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) has big and bold visions which have undoubtedly been scaled back considerably.  There are a few elements of life in 2044 which differentiate things from how we live in 2012, but largely the world is the same – except for the unyielding crime and time travel possibilities.  Perhaps Looper suffers somewhat from not being able to flesh out those larger and grander concepts it plays around with, only to then step back and double down on its characters.

In final form, the narratives in play here are riveting, and Looper is confrontational, challenging, and addicting.  I cannot wait to see it again and in acknowledging the film is dark, even ominous in certain key moments, I have not been this impressed from top to bottom, start-to-finish, in a long, long time.  Looper is a must see.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • If you can handle some of the themes and violent content, Looper is an invigorating science-fiction film; perhaps one that only gets better and better with repeat viewings.
  • If you are not familiar with Rian Johnson, you need to be.  His strong 2005 debut Brick also featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Johnson has become, three films into his career, a filmmaker we all need to become acquainted with.
  • Gordon-Levitt continues to show why he is in the upper echelon of today’s best actors and should be a huge star.  Bruce Willis has not been this consistently good in a film in years, and Emily Blunt and child actor Pierce Gagnon are impressive in the second half.  Please support this film.  Please.
NO
  • The dark elements of the film are vastly undersold in the marketing campaign.  Those who are sensitive to violence, kids in peril, and the idea of a film built around assassins executing people with no emotional connection whatsoever to their actions, might look elsewhere.
  • This is not conventional science-fiction or time travel storytelling.  Johnson has essentially rebooted those formulas with something off the charts and outward thinking.  If that seems to be something you cannot find interest in, Looper, no matter how good it is, will not win you over.
  • Some have complained that the film is at odds with itself between hour one and two.