‘Looper’: Pleased to meet me

September 24, 2012

Rian Johnson went dark noir via teen angst in his breakout film, “Brick,” then got all Wes Anderson in “The Brothers Bloom.”

Now, with “Looper,” he thinks big – or, at least, bigger, going futuristic sci-fi. But he treats the material as a crime-fiction saga, rather than a special-effects extravaganza. The result is smaller and mostly satisfying, a noir character study – with two actors playing the same character.

His name is Joe and, initially, he’s played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He lives in the future – 2042, to be exact. In the even further future, we’ve figured out time travel, then outlawed it. But somehow, the criminal underworld in 2072 has obtained control of the technology and uses it to eliminate its enemies.

Joe is a looper, doing the bidding of men in the future. He shows up at a deserted rural spot and, at an appointed time, someone from the future pops up in front of him –a bag over his head, kneeling helplessly with his arms tied behind him. Joe shoots him and disposes of the remains (apparently a more difficult task in the farther future than in 2042). That’s his job.

Then word begins to circulate: The bosses in the future, led by the head criminal known as the Rainmaker, have decided to eliminate everyone who can tie them to this practice. So they’ve started “closing loops”: The loopers discover that one of the hooded figures they kill is, in fact, the future version of themselves.

The first looper to really confront this dilemma, Seth (Paul Dano), lets his future self escape – and suffers a brutal fate at the hands of Joe’s boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), in one of the film’s most grimly imaginative sequences. Joe, however, is ready to do what he has to do should his future-self show up – but when he confronts the older Joe (Bruce Willis), his older self is resourceful enough to get away from him. Because, as it turns out, old Joe has a mission of his own, one that young Joe feels the need to foil.

Old Joe has a burning desire to alter the future: specifically the part where the Rainmaker comes gunning to send Joe back to the past to close his loop – and kills Joe’s beloved wife in the process. Old Joe figures his only recourse is to eliminate the Rainmaker while the boss is still a child. Joe has winnowed the field of possibilities to a handful of tots in 2042 – and young Joe finds himself the unwitting guardian of the child that old Joe finally settles on (as well as the child’s mother, played by Emily Blunt).

Johnson’s script is hard-boiled but not hard-hearted. Twisting noir into pretzels, he pits a man against himself – with youth impulsively assuming that its connection to raw emotion and hair-trigger reaction somehow trumps the harsh knowledge that comes with experience. What better expression of taking control of your future in a purely nihilistic way than closing your own loop?

As well-staged as some of the action is, it often comes down to gunplay, which is never particularly interesting. The film would have benefited from more face-to-face exchanges between Willis and Gordon-Levitt, who does an admirable job of imitating Willis’ throwaway style of speaking, of casually tossing off barbed one-liners.

Much has been made of the digital-imaging technique used to make Gordon-Levitt’s eyes and nose resemble Willis. It’s a frill that calls attention to itself, giving young Joe the look of a video-game figure or a character in one of those dreadful Bob Zemeckis motion-capture computer-animation films.

“Looper” is entertaining if not exactly gripping, perhaps because it stretches its premise beyond what its story will bear. But it’s the best big-studio effort of the week, a pyrrhic victory at best.

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