“This time travel crap fries your brain like an egg,” gruffs Jeff Daniels’ ageing Mafia boss Abe towards the start of Rian Johnson’s third directorial offering. It’s as much a mission statement of bold direction as a plot contrivance.
Setting himself the challenge of emulating and expanding themes established in genre classics like The Terminator, 12 Monkeys and – seriously – Back to the Future, Johnson has intricately assembled a clockwork vehicle that’s very nearly up to the task.
Set in an ‘almost’ recognisable near-future ravaged by economic meltdown and corrupted by organised crime, we enter the world of “Loopers” – callous assassins employed to finish-off marks sent back from an even more ravaged future further down the line. The kicker is that said Loopers are required on redundancy to execute a future version of themselves – “closing the loop” – in return for thirty free years and a golden retirement fund.
Oh, and 10% of the population have declared “TK” exhibiting meager telekinetic powers…
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (sporting brilliantly subtle prosthetics) plays Joe, a typically narcissistic Looper who breaks the golden rule. Never let your target escape, even if your target is you. Bruce Willis plays the future Joe; hardened and mellowed at the same time and ready to wreak vengeance on mysterious future-kingpin The Rainmaker.
So far, so good and to tell more would be to ruin several sublime surprises in the film’s latter acts. Indeed, in delivering his setup Johnson delivers 40 minutes of peerless sci-fi noir. Tarantino via Blade Runner, if you will.
We get a brilliantly textured, ruthlessly pessimistic world-creation; the underbelly induction of Scorsese’s Goodfellas transposed to a time without recourse for the “little people” and where hoverbikes are becoming the norm. Paul Dano crops up for a supporting turn steeped in slime and desperation.
The scant logic of the film’s time-travel is expounded in a terrifically grotesque scene of betrayal and mob retribution. The dark city comes alive as the early scenes zip along. Neither barbed satire nor bloodshed are sanitised away.
The problems come when the film shifts out of the city and down several gears. It’s not clear whether Johnson is attempting to evoke a sense of timeless Americana with his dust-bowl cornfields and roadside diners or whether his future-vision’s bowed by budget constraints. What’s more un-forgiveable is the slip into languor for the film’s third quarter. The introduction of Emily Blunt’s single mother Sara should spark sexual and atmospheric tension but she’s allowed to come across a little too much like her namesake, Sarah Connor – without the bite.
Of course, with a group of hands as skilled as these, things were never going to be allowed to slip too far. Both Gordon-Levitt and Blunt deliver powerful turns, while Willis essays the kind of desperate melancholy that’s not been required of him for years. Johnson executes several action scenes with virtuoso, violent verve while keeping his vision on course for the inevitable emotional payload (even if he defies his film’s own logic several times in doing so).
Looper is, on its own terms, an excellent film and one that time may well allow to become a classic. What’s frustrating is that the vision and originality of the premise is allowed to slacken and dilute somewhat in the later scenes. Still, this is ambitious, intelligent (albeit heavily flawed) sci-fi with stellar performances and moments of genuine directorial vision and daring.
Looper is released in the UK on 28th September 2012