'Looper' a stylish, unpredictable sci-fi thriller

atomictown.comOctober 1, 2012 

One of my favorite things about science fiction is how it can wave away the most ludicrous premise with a single line of exposition.

In Looper, it is very difficult to murder people in the far future because apparently bodies have embedded tags or something that will alert the police. To get around this, criminals send their victims back in time to be killed and disposed of in the past. You can't just...vaporize them? Kill them with untraceable poison? Reprogram the robot butler to do it for you?

To which Looper answers, "No! You must send them to the past. And not to 4 billion B.C., where they will die instantly because there is no oxygen, but to the less-distant future, where they must be shot by futuristic shotguns. OK?" And you know what? It is OK. Because Looper is really good. And when a movie's good enough, it can get away with not-literal murder.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a looper, an assassin paid to kill victims sent back in time from the future. The killings are perfect. Untraceable. And so highly illegal that, after 30 years in the business, each looper must be killed to hide their syndicate's tracks.

When his future self (played by Bruce Willis) is sent back to be killed, Gordon-Levitt has every intention of pulling the trigger. Instead, Willis escapes — leaving them both to be hunted by the ruthless mob that once employed them.

Writer/director Rian Johnson probably made a movie about time travel because he not-so-secretly wishes he'd been born 70 years sooner. In a time when tiger's milk was a cocktail, not an energy drink. When men wore hats on all occasions — except indoors, you fool! — and women existed largely to kill them for the insurance money. I say this about Johnson not because I've spoken to him (for some reason, he keeps changing his phone number), but because his characters — first in Brick, now in Looper — feel summoned right out of the pages of '40s noir.

But while the detective slang and trappings were highly period-specific in Brick, they're more timeless in Looper. Set (mostly) in the 2040s, Looper feels like it could just as easily be set now or in the 1940s. I mean, aside from the jetbikes. And time travel. And widespread economic ruin/vagrancy. And the telekinetic powers. OK, so there goes my little theory. But a ton of it is also set in a rural sugar cane field, so give me a break.

That's what makes Looper so unusual. For the first half, it's humming along like an everyday (if quite good) crime/chase caper, where the protagonist gets in trouble, goes on the lam and eventually figures out a way to kill his vengeance-minded boss. Roll credits.

Except, about the time Gordon-Levitt should be taking a breather and figuring out how to team up with future-self-Willis and crash their jet-cycle into the boss' helicopter, we get a long montage of Willis' life. And then an even longer time on the farm. It's not exactly boring — in fact, it's awesome — but it isn't exactly Will Smith hacking the aliens' iBook, either.

But a ton of Looper's appeal stems from Johnson's off-kilter direction. He's like the Ol' Dirty Bastard of moviemaking: there is no father to his style. His action scenes are frequently shot from the opposite point of view from what we're used to. His story swoops as unexpectedly as a King Felix changeup. It's far from clear whether we're supposed to root for Willis or Gordon-Levitt. Who, by the way, has a career ahead of him as a Bruce Willis impersonator, should the whole "Hollywood megastar" thing fall apart. Also, Jeff Daniels is a treasure.

That change in pace is pretty major. It could kill this movie for some people. Me, I got a big kick out of it, enjoying it much more than if it had gone the stereotypical shoot-'em-up route. Looper is well-written, superbly acted, funny and shot with a style that's both beautiful and surprising. It's one of my favorites of the year.

Grade: A-

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and elsewhere.

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