After the disappointingly inept Prometheus dropped an alien-egg shaped bollock back in the summer and with the recent Total Recall remake already erased from collective memory, Rian Johnson’s Looper redresses the balance with a fun piece of SF that matches smarts with spectacle. Pleasingly old-school in its commitment to both B-movie thrills and more personal human conflicts, Looper plays out like a Christopher Nolan film with a sense of humour; where the characters get to make occasional jokes and don’t simply exist to serve an overly complicated narrative.
Much as he did with 2005s Brick – his endlessly re-watchable teen noir – Johnson likes to tweak genre rather than going for snooty snark or pretentious pseudo-subversion. Looper is not a grand, visionary work; indeed, it could easily have been made by Charles Band’s Empire outfit back in the mid 80s (for the cost of Looper’s daily catering budget). The first half in particular reminded me a lot of Band’s inventive and joyful Trancers (1985).
Wisely, Johnson sets his film in a future which is a decent amount of time away but not far enough ahead to be utterly unrecognisable. The story is a bit of a head-scratcher but here goes; it is 2042 – mob rule is in effect, and governmental structures have fallen away. The Looper program, run by Abe (a lovely performance from Jeff Daniels, having a lot of fun against type) and which exists some 40 years in the future, hires out time-travelling assassins to anyone with enough cash and the desire to off somebody. Loopers take care of business, heading back to ‘42 armed with a comical-looking but deadly blunderbuss to carry out the hit with zero fuss. Joe (Joseph Gordon- Levitt ) is one of the skilled ones – carrying out hits, squirreling cash away and dreaming of a better life. However when his latest job brings him face to face literally with his own future (Bruce Willis) he sets in motion a deadly bounty hunt for both his old and future selves in both time-zones.
The ‘plausibles’ (Hitchcock’s derisive name for viewers who steadfastly refuse to yield to the pleasures of a film without unpicking every stitch in the fabric of the narrative) will naturally have some major problems with Looper. It’s an unfortunate side effect of making a time travel movie that will a) baffle the shit out of the more undemanding popcorn chompers and b) enflame the kind of nerdy Raymond Babbitt’s who will emerge fuming about how various narrative strands don’t add up. The film is not without its structural issues and there is bit of a wobble around the midway mark – but overall the vibe is so infectious and the performances so winning that you go with it. I did anyway.
If there is a flaw it’s that Johnson’s sure sense of characterisation – so strong in Brick – is not so much in evidence here. The characters are a little bit stock and sketchy. Luckily he has a stellar cast who all do fine work. Levitt is persuasive and likeable after his dour Dark Knight appearance and he channels ‘young Willis’ extremely well – particularly as he’s saddled with prosthesis that makes him look like a bad Bruce waxwork circa ‘The Return of Bruno’. Willis himself underplays in fine style; the smirk is long gone and he gets to blow stuff up which we haven’t seen him do in some time. Whenever I write about Emily Blunt I tend to stray into restraining order territory so I’ll just say that (as in The Adjustment Bureau) she brings toughness, likeability and believability to a thinly sketched role, although if you were being harsh you could say that it is her story and the introduction of her character where Looper briefly comes off the rails.
It’s at this point that Johnson also introduces a Shyamalan style twist that is either audacious or folly depending on your willingness to go with it. I did and dug it. Others may not be as taken.
It’s a little early and unwise to label Looper a classic but this is a welcome and mind-bending time-twister that eschews dour formula and predictability for wild ideas and enjoyment. As for its creator Rian Johnson, this relatively unknown, smaller–scale filmmaker is most certainly in the loop now.