Director Rian Johnson is a curious case. Having knocked everyone’s socks off with his 2005 debut Brick, the follow-up The Brothers Bloom floundered and performed poorly at the box office. In the four years since its release, he has passed the time behind the camera on some episodes of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”, but the main challenge has been to secure financing and get through production on his latest effort, the time-travel action film Looper.
The film is set in 2042 and tells the story of a “looper” (contract killer who kills people sent back in time by the mob) who runs into trouble when he recognises an older version of himself as his latest prospective victim. Killing the future version of yourself is called “closing the loop” and is basically the equivalent of a retirement carriage clock leaving you free to blow the pension on hookers and amphetamines – until that fateful day thirty years from now when you will get sent back to be killed by yourself… It sounds high-concept but it’s actually remarkably simple and Johnson’s script quickly sets out (and sticks to) the rules for the wee bit of time-travelling which is used to set up the story.
The young version of looper Joe is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who adopts some heavy prosthetics in order to make us believe he will age to become Bruce Willis. JGL plays things gruff and sedate with lots of nuanced movements and quirks that somehow make the transition from “Third Rock from the Sun” to Die Hard believable – he’s also got a little CGI and a prosthetic nose to help the audience buy it. Bruce Willis is of course very good at being Bruce Willis.
With strong supporting work from Paul Dano (a glorified cameo) and Jeff Daniels (gets all the good lines), the first three-quarters of an hour zips along. What’s remarkable is the transition that then happens as the film settles down for its final act on a secluded Kansas farm. The inhabitants – Emily Blunt’s Sara and her son Cid – weren’t featured in much of the film’s pre-release marketing, but its their inclusion which sets the film apart from being a mindless (though perfectly enjoyable) action film and instead gives it a whole lot of heart. Blunt claims she spent hours devouring audio recordings of Chris Cooper’s accent, and for the first time in her career, she actually sounds American! Thanks Chris!
Johnson and his editors cut out a huge amount of footage shot in Shanghai, much of which has made it into an extended cut that was released in China, but if sacrificing these scenes meant they could retain the “western” segment of the film and maintain a serviceable running time then it was a wise move by all.
One of the most enjoyable things about watching Looper is counting up the amount of other films that are referenced. Personally… the Terminator films, Primer, The Omen, Die Hard and The Matrix were all triggered in my mind, and you can throw in a bit of 12 Monkeys and Blade Runner if you’re that way inclined. All of these influences are by no means a negative or a hindrance as the film still stands alone as the most original Hollywood film of the year so far (sorry Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted).
A lot of people have Johnson pegged as the next Christopher Nolan – a man with unquestionable ability and a deep film knowledge who is more than willing to play along with Hollywood studios. That comparison is probably a little lazy and considering there’s only three years age difference between the two film-makers not all that appropriate. But, much like after watching Memento and Insomnia, Looper does give you a real sense that there’s so much more to come from this director. Here’s hoping Hollywood gives him the money and freedom to continue to do his thing.
USA / Directed By: Rian Johnson / Written By: Rian Johnson / Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano / 118min / Sci-Fi, Action / Release: 28 September 2012 (UK/Ireland/US/Canada)