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Looper / ***½ (R)Posted Sunday, September 30, 2012, at 11:52 PM
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same character from different futures in the sci-fi thriller "Looper".
"Looper" is an ingenious science fiction thriller from filmmaker Rian Johnson. Writer/director Johnson is a specialist in sublime cleverness. He nearly outsmarts his own screenplay this time around as he did with his last effort "The Brothers Bloom". His brilliant debut film "Brick" remains the benchmark to which he's trying to return. However, if you just let "Looper" happen, it is a thrilling, twisting, unexpected ride down the all too often familiar territory of time travel science fiction. Johnson has turned that premise into something new here.
Like so many great science fictions, "Looper" takes place in the not too distant future 2042. Time travel has not been invented yet, but it will have been 30 years later. In the future, time travel is quickly made illegal and only a powerful organized crime syndicate retains the technology for any practical use. They employ assassins from 2042 called loopers to kill victims who are sent back from 2072.
Joe is a looper, hand picked by Abe, the mob liaison from the future. Joe is a company man; he does his job. He understands that his final hit could possibly be his own future self. It's part of what he signed off on. Rumors are coming back from 2072 that a new enforcer known as The Rainmaker is taking over power and closing out all the loops by having all the loopers assassinate their future selves. Despite the fact that Joe's best friend Seth must pay a terrible price for failing to kill his future self, Joe continues to toe the line until he comes face to face with his future self and is taken by surprise.
Often when dealing with two versions of the same character, filmmakers will chose to have the same actor play both roles by employing age make up. Here it is the younger Joseph Gordon-Levitt who wears the prosthetic make up to look more like Bruce Willis as his older self. The two actors' faces don't look that much alike. Willis' mug is very easy for audiences to recognize after thirty years of playing action heroes. Levitt's performance as a younger version of this iconic actor is a case in close physical study. He mimics many of Willis' very recognizable facial expressions and physicalities. He never succumbs to the urge to force an impression of Willis, however.
Willis, on the other hand, takes on a strange version of that action hero he's played all his life. He's not the hero here, Levitt is. The plot does a good job of not teaming the two together. They both work toward the goal of preventing a terrible act from being committed. Although it is the same act they try to prevent, they come at it from completely different philosophies and don't ever realize it. Young Joe never stops towing the company line, and insists on successfully fulfilling his promise to assassinate his future self. Old Joe is after another game altogether. His mission is more personal than his younger self, who tries to keep his actions business oriented. While Willis performs some of the same actions as many of his heroic roles, his personal mission also sends him down a much darker path.
Young Joe also finds himself getting in touch with more personal feelings, which are new to him, when he gets involved with a mother and son who live in isolation on a farm. He finds he needs to protect these two from Abe's goons who are chasing him, and from his future self, who may be hunting the child. Emily Blunt plays the mother, Sarah, as a tough cookie who seems to have left a very different life to raise her child. Cid (Pierce Gagnon) is a kid with some surprising revelations that prove to have a much grander impact on Joe's life than he could ever realize.
Obviously, there are some pretty major details to this plot that I'm choosing to avoid in order to preserve the integrity of its secrets. The trick to pulling a movie like this off, however, isn't in what the details of the plot are but how they are revealed and used throughout the running time of the movie. Most importantly, Johnson keeps the plot moving at a fairly breakneck pace. The plot is never confusing, but he moves it along at such a pace that the audience doesn't really get much of a chance to process any information they receive before it is already in use.
Any time travel plot invites second-guessing on behalf of the audience. Johnson tries to avoid some of this with a scene between the two Joes that takes place in a diner. Old Joe explains that they could sit there for days discussing the workings of time travel, but it would be a waste of time because it isn't the point. This speech is delivered as much to the audience as it is to his younger self. He's not lying. You could run yourself around the mechanics of the movie's plot for weeks, but then you'd be missing the point.
The most ingenious aspect of Johnson's screenplay, however, is probably the title. Unlike many futuristic thrillers 'looper' is not merely a term made up to describe some sort of future profession that doesn't exist yet. It describes so much more. It describes the plot. It describes many of the character's relationships with each other. It even describes the type of thinking and discussion in which the audience will engage in order to understand exactly what the plot entails. Most importantly is describes the lesson it holds. We can never change what we are without breaking the loops that we build up in our own lives. The only path toward change requires us to close out our own loops.
"Looper" is currently playing at Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.