Friday, September 28, 2012

Looper: What goes around, comes around

Looper (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong violence, gore, profanity, nudity, sexuality and drug use
By Derrick Bang

Clever time travel stories can be intriguing head-scratchers; I just wish Looper weren’t so vicious, nasty and morally bankrupt.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, right), a professional assassin for a mob boss in the year
2044, should have killed his future self, "Old Joe" (Bruce Willis), in order to retire
gracefully on his hard-earned savings. But Old Joe isn't interested in being offed, and
in fact offers a partnership with his hot-headed younger self, in order to tackle a
bigger enemy whose activities will affect them both. Confused yet? The time-travel
issues only get more complicated...
This is one of those stories populated solely by thugs, killers and other assorted low-life scum; by the time our one truly sympathetic character steps onto the stage, we’ve been numbed almost senseless.

Writer/director Rian Johnson is known for his off-center sensibilities, which have ranged from the whimsically eccentric (2008’s The Brothers Bloom) to the downright brutal (a few episodes of TV’s Breaking Bad). His career-making debut, 2005’s Brick, starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a teenage loner who turns amateur Sam Spade in order to figure out who killed his former girlfriend; rarely has high school looked so corrupt and seamy.

Johnson re-unites with Gordon-Levitt for Looper, another in a recent line of science-fiction concepts that takes place in a near future where society and compassionate behavior have gone straight to hell. (See In Time, Repo Men and the remake of Total Recall, among others.) Such films borrow strongly from Blade Runner, but generally without the intelligence, wit and fascinating ethical undercurrents of that 1982 classic.

That said, I give Johnson credit for an intriguing premise. The year is 2044, the setting a major American metropolis that has failed, its dilapidated infrastructure barely able to support the 99 percent who now appear to live in slums, and look with envy upon the few sophisticates wealthy enough to purchase things such as slick hover vehicles. The economy has fallen apart, and manufacturing appears to have stopped; as a result, the “common folk” drive old cars and live in apartments that could have sprung from a 1950s-era Raymond Chandler novel.

And, as with the sci-fi/western mash-up Joss Whedon concocted for his short-lived but much-loved TV series, Firefly, the weapons of choice are 19th century pistols and a shotgun-esque nightmare known as a blunderbuss.

Time travel doesn’t yet exist, but it’s known to have been invented 30 years in the future, where it’s illegal and available only on the black market. Since disposing of a dead body is near impossible in 2074, mobsters employ time travel in order to “vanish” their enemies. The hapless victims pop up at pre-determined spots in 2044, where a “looper” — a hired killer — blows them away and then cremates the remains. No muss, no fuss.

The loopers get their marching orders from Abe (Jeff Daniels), a crime boss sent back from the future to keep things organized in 2044. His best agents include Seth (Paul Dano), who tries to conceal his psychological frailty beneath reckless behavior; Kid Blue (Noah Segan), an immature toady whose opinion of his murderous talents outshines his actual skill; and Joe (Gordon-Levitt), a career hit man who genuinely enjoys his job, and is quite good at it.

We’re introduced to Joe as he plies his brutal trade ... repeatedly. Johnson, obviously not a subscriber to the downside of overkill, clearly believes there’s no such thing as watching gory chunks blown out of too many hog-tied bodies. We get the point long before Johnson is finished: a clear indication of the mean-spiritedness to come.

If this film’s first 10 minutes leave you eyeing the exits, departure would be the better part of valor; things only get worse.

Assuming loopers don’t perish on the job and successfully reach middle age, they’re then deemed a liability by those same mob bosses in 2074, who ship them back to be executed by their younger selves in 2044; this is known as “closing the loop.” The loopers get a fat payoff for this final assignment, and then can live their next 30 years in luxury and peace ... albeit knowing what fate eventually awaits them.

Occasionally, loopers prove unable to carry out this last contract, which leaves their older self attempting to blend into the past. But because this has the potential to upset the timestream, Abe always takes steps to correct the balance: a particularly chilling solution that’s easily the story’s most ghastly concept.

Indeed, I can’t help wondering if Johnson thought of that horrific notion first, and then fashioned the rest of his narrative around it.

Anyway, Joe eventually is faced with the need to close his loop ... but his older self, “Old Joe” (Bruce Willis), has some tricks up his sleeve, and escapes. To make matters even more complicated, Old Joe has learned of a psychopath in 2074, who is killing all loopers; Old Joe’s solution to this problem, which is particularly heinous, would work out better if Joe helped.

But Joe just wants to finish the job, in order to get Abe’s goons off his back.

Are you following all this?

Don’t try too hard, because some of Johnson’s plot points collapse under scrutiny; that’s always an issue with time travel stories. Best, if possible, to simply side with Joe — and possibly Old Joe — in their efforts to “fix things” and survive.

Assuming you feel that would be a good outcome, which is far from certain. This guy — both of him — don’t exactly side with the angels.

Gordon-Levitt makes an intriguing protagonist: a junkie, thrill-seeker and ruthless killer ... who nonetheless hesitates when asked to betray a friend. Conscience and integrity may be buried deeply within this lad, but they’re not entirely dead, and Gordon-Levitt’s eyes reflect this inner turmoil.

He’s at something of a disadvantage when it comes to subtler acting, though, because he spends the entire film in makeup and a prosthetic nose, upper and lower lip, all designed to help him resemble Willis, and courtesy of special effects makeup designer Kazuhiro Tsuji. The result is visually impressive; even Gordon-Levitt’s avid fans, if not in the know, might have trouble recognizing him. But this partial mask does turn him into something of a blank stone face.

Willis, under no such burden, navigates a range that runs from his signature smirk and smart-mouthed one-liners, to cold brutality and even a bit of loving warmth. Indeed, it would be nice to spend a bit more time with Old Joe; the man has matured into a complicated soul who genuinely wants to be a better person ... but finds that his old life simply won’t leave him alone. The question, then, is whether he still has the stomach for extreme solutions.

Daniels, scruffy beneath an ill-kempt beard, employs an amiable nature — which we recognize from so many other films — as a means to magnify his character’s savagery, when Abe is required to administer some coldhearted discipline. Dano is his frequently twitchy self as the easily agitated Seth — an undeveloped, one-dimensional role — and Segan essentially serves as (grim) comic relief, as the dim-witted Kid Blue.

Piper Perabo turns up as Suzie, a hedonistic dancer/stripper with a fondness for Joe. Fans of Perabo’s resourceful Annie Walker on TV’s Covert Affairs likely will be surprised by the amount of skin she bares here: an interesting career choice, to say the least.

That leaves Emily Blunt, who turns up in the second act as Sara, who ... well, I really can’t say anything about Sara, without giving away too many details. Suffice it to say that Blunt delivers her usual thoughtful, accomplished and deftly layered performance. Young Pierce Gagnon, who plays Sara’s son, Cid, pretty much steals the film once he enters the story: such an expressive little face, and such a fascinating character.

Blunt and Gagnon almost are worth the price of admission ... assuming, as already mentioned, that your eyes haven’t glazed over by the time they appear.

I’d love to have seen Looper handled by a writer and director with restraint and a greater appreciation for subtlety; Johnson’s core premise has plenty of potential, and some of the narrative bumps are clever and quite haunting. Unfortunately, he too frequently trades “unsettling” for “offensively gross,” which transports his film to the fringes of torture porn such as the Saw franchise.

And that’s the major problem: Looper is marketed as thoughtful sci-fi, when in fact it’s gut-churning horror ... a distinction liable to annoy patrons who wander in unprepared. Johnson is more talented than this, and it’s a shame to see him pander to a gore-hound’s lowest common denominator.

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