In 2005, Rian Johnson debuted with the sensational neo-noir, Brick. A film that took the codes and conventions of a film noir, and transposed them to a high-school setting -ie a brat-pack film with private dicks and femme fatales. Following Brick, Johnson made the convoluted and rather disappointing, The Brothers Bloom (Johnson, 2008), which tellingly suffered from ‘shooting’ difficulties and studio interference. Johnson’s first film in four years sees him tackling Science-Fiction, in his time-travel caper, Looper, but the question is, it is any good?
The year is 2044 and America has suffered a financial meltdown, which has seen society’s decline and in turn the rise of organised crime. Thirty years from now, in 2074, time travel will be invented and almost immediately outlawed. However, the crime syndicates of the world still commit murder, but with electronic tagging it has become nigh on impossible to kill somebody and dispose of the evidence. Therefore, time travel is used to send ‘targets’ back in time, before electronic tagging was invented, enabling the organisations to murder their victims and have the body safely disposed of -a task performed by ‘Loopers’.
The ‘loopers’ live hedonistic lives, albeit shallow, short ones and they are referred to by this name because one day they will ‘close their loop’, which means to kill their future-self. When this occurs, instead of receiving their usual payment in silver, they receive a one-off payment in gold. This will signify that their loop has been closed and that they are released from their contract, free to live out their remaining days.
So, one day, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is going about his daily ‘looper’ routine, waiting for his victim to arrive, but he gets a nasty surprise when he discovers his next victim is his future-self, old Joe (Bruce Willis). Unfortunately for Joe, old Joe has no intention of lying down and dying -he’s here to change the future -and so a game of ‘cat and mouse’ ensues, with Joe determined to ‘close his loop’, before his boss, Abe (Jeff Bridges), takes matters into his own hands.
Now, Looper is good, heck, it’s great! It might not redefine the Science-Fiction genre, but it’s definitely one of the best popcorn-entertainment films of 2012. And a large part of its success can be attributed to Johnson’s leading man, no not Bruce Willis, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose performance is so much more than an impersonation of a young Bruce.
Gordon-Levitt, in his prosthetic make-up, is a jarring experience, but the rather talented actor hasn’t shone like this, since his performance in Inception (Nolan, 2010) or Mark Webb’s (500) Days of Summer (2009). Between Johnson and Gordon-Levitt, they have given the character, Joe, something which is often forgotten about or executed poorly, in popular entertainment, and that’s a proper narrative arc. That’s the hook, that’s why the film works so well and perhaps that’s a lesson learnt from Johnson’s time on Breaking Bad* -a TV show with a phenomenal character arc. In the end, the film is centred upon our protagonist’s transformation and all the Science-Fiction fun, is just extravagant window dressing.
However, not all of the acting in Looper is outstanding, with the vast majority of the cast having little to do, other than play type, whether you’re Emily Blunt as the token love interest, the wet villain played by Jeff Bridges or his equally moist deputy, played by Noah Segan (Dode from Brick). And then there’s Bruce Willis, who’s here to be the ass kicker he used to be, he’s perfectly fine, just don’t expect this to be a defining moment in the actor’s career. As with Arnie and Sly, Bruce Willis is just another action star, who has gotten old.
The time travel aspect of the story really proves to be little more than a plot device, and Looper is no more a pure Sci-Fi film, than Brick was a teen movie. Johnson’s new film, like the two before it, is reluctant to be any one thing, it wants to shrug-off its classification, its genre-fication. It bares resemblance to not only Science-Fiction, but also the Western or even a certain Japanese anime -with its telekinesis sub-plot. As with Brick, Johnson has crafted a confident and ballsy spin on familiar archetypes, it might not be all that original, but it proves to be thoroughly exciting and engaging throughout.
Ultimately, Looper proves to be all about redemption, and perhaps Rian Johnson felt he needed to redeem himself after the mess that was, The Brothers Bloom. Whether that’s the case or not, is irrelevant, because Looper is a devastatingly enjoyable example, of what popular entertainment should be.
*Johnson directed The Fly from series three and Fifty-One from series five.