The Short Version? "Come with me if you want to live as a pale shadow of your former self."
What Is It? Sci-fi action/drama.
Should I See It? Maybe.
Looper is definitely the second best Rian Johnson movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt so far. It is probably also the second best Bruce Willis time travel film set in a dystopic future, although I have to confess winging it without double checking at IMDb. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, a-yup. I haven't reviewed Rian Johnson's first film, Brick, because it's so fucking brilliant that the prospect of trying to express my feelings about it is exhausting just to think about. I did review his second film, The Brothers Bloom, because it is way easier to analyze stuff on the pretty good-through-shit spectrum without trying to reach the painful, blinding radiance of a true gem like Brick. Bloom is one of my girlfriend's favorite films though, because she's really into Wes Anderson.
Looper, on the other hand, will be on no one's lifetime top ten lists. It'll make a bunch of year end lists, as evidenced by the overly enthusiastic reviews you'll read elsewhere. These are people high off Johnson's previous efforts; who saw it at festivals with buddies and booze; who hunger for anything not summer studio slop. Let it come to video, watch it a few times, maybe suffer through a continuance of Johnson's downward trajectory as a writer-director... they'll come around.
In the far future, you can't kill anybody and get away with it, like in Minority Report. Instead, gangsters send their prospective victims back in time to the less far future, to be killed and disposed of. Time travel is also highly illegal, but is somehow harder to police than making one person out of billions disappear. Wouldn't the same evidence trail in a murder lead investigators to your temporal bathysphere? Of all the ways a criminal enterprise could employ time travel, isn't that pretty low on the list? In case you missed it, what we establish from the premise is that this isn't one of those intellectual science fiction movies with a firm command of cause and effect, but more of a Back to the Future fairy tale, without making as much sense. However, it's not the logic of Marty McFly being capable of existing after unmaking the circumstances of his own conception, surviving due to delayed temporal consequence allowing him to ultimately create a parallel timeline in which he exists under revised circumstances. It's more the logic of deciding to strand the near entirety of the last Back to the Future in the old west. This would be the "what the fuck ever" theory of time travel filmmaking.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Bruce Willis at around age thirty. He has to do this because they're playing the same character aged thirty years apart who find themselves at cross purposes when Willis goes back in time to fix the future. Joe obviously studied Bruno's mannerisms, and offers a solid impersonation that spans the length of the film. Unfortunately, Bruce Willis has had an acting career since he was the same age as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so those of us who watched Moonlighting will not recall Bruce looking like a segment of Conan O'Brien's old Late Night skit "If They Mated" co-featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This could have been easily overcome by having their character undergo plastic surgery at some point to conceal his identity, or perhaps to recover from the sort of accident that could turn that cute kid from Third Rock into John McClane v4.0. Alternately, as it was handled with another character, you could just tell the audience that one actor is the older/younger version of a different actor. Instead, they buried Joseph Gordon-Levitt in latex and poor quality make-up that renders him a heavily botoxed closeted transvestite with a passing resemblance to Bruce Willis, mostly in profile. As a person who has spent a significant portion of his life believing in actors wearing ridiculous prosthetics on television shows with often dire production values, you're a stronger/more gullible man than me if this doesn't distract you in every fucking scene.
Setting aside the wholly unnecessary press-baiting gimmick, the character played by Gordon-Levitt and Willis isn't much on the page. Perhaps if the same actor had been employed in a dual role, the presentation would have been more nuanced. Instead, Willis seems to be playing Gordon-Levitt's crazy absentee father, or just a random asshole with some sort of contrived psycho-physical connection to some other jerk. Neither version of the character is developed sufficiently to be engaging emotionally, and the altruism displayed by one toward the end of the movie seems wholly inorganic. Setting aside arguments of the rules of chronology, there is a lack of personal truth in the identities at the heart of the film. If the intention is to make a more human sci-fi film, and most of the movie is about moving pieces across a cold marble chessboard instead of properly motivating the characters, you've failed on both fronts.*
Emily Blunt as the female lead that doesn't show up until halfway through the running time is vague and unengaging. While better than average, I still say that it isn't worth the bother of hiring a British actor to produce an unconvincing rural American accent when an Australian can perform it better than anyone born on the coasts. Her Sara is no Connor, and she never performs a single action that doesn't feel dictated by a script. She's sorta kinda somebody's mommy; functionally but not really a love interest; an entirely ineffectual "tough" gal. Qing Xu gets more done as an idealized figure in a cameo than Blunt does with a full role. Blunt is basically just there to provide exposition, have exposition provided to her, and act as a semi-surrogate for Xu. It's sad and a bit embarrassing to play such a naked functionary.
There are a slew of fantastic but modest supporting roles. Foremost is Jeff Daniels as the laid back, fatherly mafia expediter, a role he firmly inhabits and breathes such life into that it makes you look past Gordon-Levitt's rubber nose to the twinkle it produces in his eyes. Noah Segan and Paul Dano deserved more screen time, while Tracie Thoms was wasted in a nothing, blink-and-you'll-miss-her part. Pierce Gagnon is going to be a big deal for the next few years, at least until puberty strikes.
Johnson conveys his story through a more quiet independent vibe, but Looper doesn't put anything fresh to the table. The dual role bit was used to better effect in Face/Off, and much of the core dynamic of the movie belongs to the Terminator and Trancers franchises. It reminded me a lot of Primer, except Primer is one of those remote controlled helicopters to Looper's misfolded paper airplane. Bruce Willis already made the similar and vastly superior 12 Monkeys, and I'm not sure we really needed a lo-fi Akira tribute. The only point I can see is for Johnson to play it safe so that he can finally cash a check off one of his own flicks. Looper is dumb, dull, and obvious. No wonder it's making fair yield on a negligible investment. There's about ten minutes of cute innovations, noteworthy performances, and interesting cinematography. The rest is workmanlike, trying to make an honest living in a troubled economy. There are far worse films to see this year, but it's almost as bad to face something as disheartening as this follow-up for what was once a promising filmmaker.
- Looper Theatrical Commentary Track Audiences are encouraged by the director to download it and listen on an MP3 player during a repeat viewing of the film before getting an entirely different track on the forthcoming DVD/Blu-Ray. I usually listen to such things as background noise, and this was as serviceable as most. It did provide clarification of my (ultimately confirmed) assumptions about the goals and thus failings of the picture.
*Just a quick bit of spoilery nitpicking, but how is it that Bruce Willis after a quarter century of substance and other physical abuse followed by a half-decade of serene retirement becomes the ultimate killing machine, while his younger self in the prime of his life mostly just runs away from people shooting at him? How is this supposed to be the same guy? Who decides a bullshit '80s montage is the best way to get that across and doesn't at least offer a dubstep remix of "Eye of the Tiger" to sell it proper?