Sunday, September 30, 2012

In Theaters: LOOPER (2012)

(US/China - 2012)

Written and directed by Rian Johnson.  Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Garret Dillahunt, Pierce Gagnon, Summer Qing, Tracie Thoms. (R, 118 mins)

Time-travel movies almost always have some logistical flaw or gaping plot hole that would seem to negate everything that happens in the story.  LOOPER tries to pre-emptively circumvent any criticisms by having one of the main characters describe the process as "fuzzy," almost as a way of telling nit-picky audiences to just shut up and enjoy the movie.  LOOPER's time-travel antics are actually pretty solidly-constructed and very plausible in the confines of its own universe.  Upon one viewing, the time-travel element holds together, though other key elements might not.  LOOPER is getting some of the most positive reviews of any film released this year.  It's a good movie--cleverly-written, imaginative, intelligent, well-acted--though I can't help but wonder if we've become so accustomed to focus-group-induced mediocrity and the go-through-the-motions clock-punching exhibited by so many of today's films that when something relatively smart and inventive like LOOPER comes along and puts forth a little effort, that there isn't a knee-jerk reaction to label it a game-changer.  LOOPER is a good movie and it's mostly very entertaining...but it's not some kind of new genre classic, especially when its second hour doesn't live up to the promise of the first.

In 2074, time-travel is invented and immediately outlawed.  But the mob decides to use it to go back in time to 2044 and whack people in the past so they don't become an issue in the future.  The hitmen who handle these jobs are called "Loopers."  And the day will eventually come when a 2044 Looper is forced to kill the 2074 version of himself, in which case they're given a massive payment allowing them to live it up for 30 years, knowing the exact time when their life will be over.  One such Looper is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who does his job well and enjoys the flashy lifestyle of fast cars, available women, and designer drugs.  But he starts noticing that more and more of his Looper associates are being tasked with killing their 2074 selves, meaning their boss--known as The Rainmaker--is terminating the Looper contracts and getting rid of all evidence of their existence in a process known as "closing the loop."  Trouble arises when Joe finds himself face-to-face with his 2074 self (Bruce Willis), who gets the upper hand on Joe and manages to escape after a botched shootout at a diner.  Old Joe lived a life of killing and drug addiction in Shanghai, and only recently married a loving woman (Summer Qing) who helped him change his ways and he isn't quite ready to call it a life and go out with quiet acceptance of his fate.  Convinced he can change his future, Old Joe traveled from 2074 to 2044 to find and kill The Rainmaker before he can take over all organized crime and close the loops.  Old Joe has narrowed the potential Rainmakers down to three young boys in 2044, and decides to kill each one in order to change the course of his future.  Joe, meanwhile, takes refuge at a farm owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), a "TK," or one of the 10% of the population with a telekinesis mutation, and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who shares a birthday with other two children being sought by Old Joe.  Old Joe must kill The Rainmaker to evade death and live his newfound life, but Joe must kill Old Joe to secure his next 30 years.

There's a tremendous complexity to the world of LOOPER, and writer/director Rian Johnson (BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM) has constructed one of the most imaginative sci-fi concepts to hit the screen in some time, even if one of its central elements is a pretty blatant lift from THE TERMINATOR (itself inspired by the works of legendary plaintiff and occasional sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, who is no doubt tentatively scheduled to file a lawsuit again Johnson and the producers any second now).  The first hour of LOOPER is so good that it's a disappointment when it starts to fall apart a bit in the second.  The ending is nicely ambiguous on one hand, but it just feels a little weak, and the "TK" element of the story is abandoned for much of the film and never really explored to its full potential other than when it's convenient for the plot (in a scene that borrows a memorable killing from Brian De Palma's 1978 film THE FURY), and I still can't figure out why Johnson chose to have one of the film's key antagonists get killed offscreen.  But the first hour has some doozies:  one 2074 Looper returns and escapes his 2044 incarnation, and starts literally falling apart when the mob's "Gat Men" torture and dismember his 2044 self;  2044 Loopers can carve notes into their flesh that materialize as scars on their 2074 selves, which leads to one of the film's best lines ("Fewer letters"); and a criminally underused Jeff Daniels steals the film as Abe, the mob's grumpy Looper supervisor, sent from 2074 to 2044 to oversee the operation.  Daniels, in one of his career-best performances, is so good here that I wouldn't mind seeing a LOOPER offshoot that centered on his character.

Also of note is that the film is a co-production with China's DMG Entertainment, who provided co-star Qing as well as the visual effects crew.  If you haven't seen Chinese visual effects...well, with the exception of the occasional wuxia like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON or HERO or CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, they're...not good.  Imagine the dodgiest CGI and greenscreen work from an American effects company or the typical work of the Bulgarian outfit Worldwide FX (responsible for the CGI splatter and SyFy-level fake explosions in NuImage fare like THE EXPENDABLES 2), but worse.  There's a couple of shots in LOOPER involving a hovercycle-type bike and it's just embarrassing, bush-league greenscreen and matte work.  Some of the "TK" destruction shots have a really cheap feel to them that's a distraction when it should be dazzling.  But I'm sure that was part of the deal, and it's indicative of just how important the Chinese market has become to worldwide distribution and box office (DMG is also co-financing the upcoming IRON MAN 3).  In fact, the version of LOOPER released in China is specifically tailored for that audience, likely removing Piper Perabo's nudity and also including some additional scenes shot with Qing in the brief Shanghai portion of the US version.

Willis and Gordon-Levitt are excellent as both eras of Joe, each inhabting a large gray area of heroism vs. villainy, each with very valid reasons for doing what they do. It's Willis' best role in years, and he's matched by Gordon-Levitt, who's under extensive makeup to resemble a younger Willis, which isn't always convincing, but he really nails a lot of Willis' signature tics, mannerisms and line deliveries.  LOOPER isn't quite what it could've--and should've--been, but flaws and all, it's still smarter, wittier, and more inventive than almost anything else out there right now.

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