Directed by: Rian Johnson || Produced by: Ram Bergman, James D. Stern
Screenplay by: Rian Johnson || Starring: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels, Pierce Gagnon, Summer Qing, Tracie Thomas, Garret Dillahunt, Nick Gomez
Music by: Nathan Johnson || Cinematography: Steve Yedlin || Edited by: Bob Ducsay || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 118 minutes
The single biggest reason I look forward to The Last Jedi (2017) this December is not my enjoyment of The Force Awakens (2015), nor my lifelong attachment to the Star Wars franchise (1977, 1980, 1983, 2015), but Rian Johnson’s 2012 film, Looper. Arguably the best action film regarding time travel since Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), as well as the best melding of neor-noir crime drama tropes with science-fiction since Blade Runner (1984), Looper showcases Johnson’s skill as a filmmaker by taking an otherwise ludicrous concept and making it relatable, emotional, and captivating.
The ludicrous concept to which I’m referring is the film’s diegesis, its bizarre, borderline incoherent (on paper) world. Looper envisions a near future where organized crime is based around time-travel hit jobs, whereby mafiosos in 2074 transport victims thirty years prior to be eliminated by associates called Loopers to avoid vague, unspecified crime prevention technology. Our lead character, played by my favorite bland, forgettable actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a Looper who runs into trouble with his mob employers upon botching the hit of his future self (Bruce Willis; it’s a long story…). Confused yet?
If this premise sounds convoluted or downright stupid, you would and should be forgiven for thinking so. I thought as much following the film’s uninspired marketing campaign, but upon watching the movie years later, I was shocked at how good it was. Looper elevates not only its dumbass premise but also the bland acting of Gordon-Levitt and the half-assed demeanor of Bruce Willis’ post-1990s career. It speaks volumes that Johnson not only executes a genre-hybrid with a complicated premise, but coaxes effective, memorable performances from one rather untalented actor and another who hasn’t feinted effort in a high-profile action role in over a decade. That’s great direction.
Perhaps the best aspect of Looper’s narrative is its structure; the film is paced well to allow numerous character development moments between multiple castmembers throughout the story, all while shifting between multiple time zones via well constructed flashbacks, effective montage sequences, and concise voiceovers. The film moves like a son of a bitch, too, never dallying without purpose nor allowing dramatic scenes to drag. At just under two hours in length, Looper is a premiere example how to pace and structure a modern action film.
Looper’s set design and production values are also strong. Its not-too-distant future settings are identifiable without seeming incredulous, aiming more for dilapidated urban ghettos a la Blade Runner or nondescript rural areas than either sterilized downtown utopias or post-apocalyptic melancholy. Despite its absurd premise, Looper’s world feels tangible and original, using its colorful diegesis to establish plot twists, unique character motivations, and creative visual humor. Even the story’s confusing, quasi-psychological time-travel plot device remains intriguing to the final scene, upending any logical fallacies one may notice throughout the film’s running-time.
Looper’s action almost feels like an afterthought to the emotional characters and lived-in noir world, yet its unapologetic gangster violence leaves a mark. At times, the film’s plethora of retro-futuristic firearms and Western attire feel straight out of a Clint Eastwood picture, while its crime drama overtones embrace gruesome blood squibs and a high body count. It’s far from the balletic, catlike grace of John Wick’s (2014, 2017) or The Raid’s (2011, 2014) action set-pieces, but like both its story structure and creative setting, Looper’s fight sequences cannot be dismissed for lack of originality or masculinity. This is a crime drama with teeth, God damn it.
Sealing the deal on the film’s appeal (hey… that rhymes!) is Gordon-Levitt’s arc. Gordon-Levitt navigates this narrative for the most part as a violent, shortsighted, self-serving asshole, which I appreciated; the character acts logically given his profession and the genre-blended diegesis, while Gordon-Levitt forgoes the generic boy-next-door charm that has defined his career. That being said, Johnson’s script earns this character’s redemption, or rather allows this character to earn redemption for himself in way that feels satisfying and even poignant. His protagonist’s arc brings the story full circle (… like a loop?), tying off all other characters’ arcs in the process and sealing the movie’s overarching themes of predestination, selfishness, empathy, and sacrifice in a nice, shiny bow.
I cannot stress enough how impressed I was how writer-director Rian Johnson called every one of my doubts about this film, its cast, and its central premise. This film’s setting and storyline are ridiculous on paper, I haven’t been a fan of Bruce Willis’ work for the past decade and a half, and I have never cared for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in any film he has ever done. Those factors notwithstanding, Looper is an excellent film; it is great science-fiction, crime drama, action, and characterization all in one. If Johnson remains the talented screenwriter, genre master, and actors’ director he was for this film, I have nothing but sky-high expectations for Star Wars‘ eighth installment. After a film like Looper, how could one not?
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Looper is the complete package as far as story structure, characterizations, and visual design are concerned. It is more vicious than most action blockbusters, and yet its shootouts and gangster aesthetics are more bells and whistles than main feature. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are elevated both by their written material and Johnson’s master direction. There’s something in this film for everybody.
— However… Gordon-Levitt’s makeup, done to make him look more like his “future self,” Bruce Willis, is distracting. Emily Blunt’s acting is one area where Johnson’s directing super-powers are ineffective. She’s not bad, just… forgettable. Someone’s gotta work on that Southern drawl, y’all.
? Then, I saw it; I saw a mom die for her son; A man who would kill for his wife; A boy angry and alone. Laid out in front of him, the bad path, I saw it. That path was a circle… ‘Round and ’round… So I changed it.
“Arguably the best action film regarding time travel since Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), as well as the best melding of neor-noir crime drama tropes with science-fiction since Blade Runner (1984)” – other candidates?
None with which I am familiar, though I’ve heard through the grapevine Dark City (1998) is a good sci-fi noir. I suppose 12 Monkeys (1995) is another. As for action films that utilize time-travel plot devices, I have no idea. Can you think of any yourself?
Of big action films there isn’t so much I guess. Lots of good indies though (Donnie Darko?). Maybe we can count Edge of Tomorrow & Source Code 😃 Dark City is a good noir dystopia. Then we have mediocre The Time Machine (2002) & Timecop.