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Looper – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 5/5

As unsympathetic as I am to Science Fiction, I can definitely dig many films in the genre simply because of how heterodox it is. I most enjoy any attempt in the genre to consciously ignore and depart from, or to subversively undermine its hallmarks, or feign an attempt at them while creating a more tangible drama. Alien I love because it’s an infusion of horror, while Starship Troopers I love because it fundamentally and cheekily undermines Robert Heinlein. Writer/director Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom) grabs my attention and respect with Looper, by intermingling quasi-post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi (savaged by economy rather than WMDs) with the traditional gangster flick, and not resting on that coolness, it creates a sharp tragedy only possible with this amalgam of genres.

The film is a tech-noir not unlike Blade Runner (also quite dystopian; conscious of the East), starring now-frequent Johnson collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock kid) in his first big time action film lead as Joe Simmons, a looper: an executioner for the Kansas mob, set to dispatching victims sent from the future where murder is exceedingly difficult. His friend Seth (Paul Dano), also a looper, is delivered the future Seth to execute in order to “close his loop”, but he fails to pull the trigger, letting him escape – a grave offense that leads to a creepy bodily disintegration when they medically torture the present Seth. Soon, Joe is faced with his own future self (Bruce Willis), and after he escapes by throwing a gold brick at him, we get to see his story in the timeline where he does shoot himself: he lives a sordid existence where his grand payoff quickly erodes on narcotics and a return out of retirement to kill again.

The plot of Looper, in spite of its chronological shifts, has only one momentary departure, and is otherwise quite linear, and told straightforward without the convoluted ambiguity of a film like Inception, whose self-satisfaction in its confusing array of manifold layers produces very little substance once you get through the smoke and mirrors. Looper is far superior to that nonsense because instead of seamlessly floating between future and present, and different timeline perspectives to subdue our critical faculties, it presents a tragedy of a pathetic and selfish son of a bitch (Willis) whose attempt to improve his fate and correct his mistakes ironically takes the opposite turn when his past self (3rd Rock) is disgusted with his future, and decides to selflessly set the course right again, even for his supposed telekinetic superhero arch-enemy.

Johnson, who is again providing a free in-theater commentary track for Looper, avoids hard Sci-Fi almost immediately by dispensing with the inanities of time travel logic and quantum physics, as Bruce Willis brusquely shapes its firmly invented dramatic logic in the matter of a few seconds at a country diner, and that’s that. Government regulation of time travel, what happens to x when y, etc., all wide of the point for this narrative. I like that. I like that a lot. People who are itching to hear that stuff I can only guess aren’t likely interested in dramatic film period, so fuck them. There are plot holes galore in Looper, but again, the integrity of a narrative’s logic rests solely on its higher purpose, and Looper is a rather straightforward tragedy which requires none of the DNA of hard Sci-Fi in the script to accomplish its goal. That stuff is just horseapples.

The concepts of the future are interesting, and somewhat amusing. Looper is another recent flick that sees our current economic downturn as a long-term imperial decline, with a psychological need for the East to be threateningly on the upswing to our former place in prosperity. Get over yourselves, you insecure shits. This dystopian hellscape, where vagrants roam farmland like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, presumes first that the permanent business cycle is a permanent business slide, and that third world countries look like this mess. Last I checked, Brazil does have poverty, but few zombie-like vagrants.

Another interesting thing is the choice of China as the future setting. This was helped along by DMG Entertainment offering funds to the production to choose this setting, instead of Paris, which was far too expensive. The Chinese version of Looper included more scenes in China from the cutting room floor, because they included star Xu Qing as Bruce Willis’ wife, who is relatively unknown in the West. The depiction of a superior China and hellscape America is deeply amusing, but was pushed from two angles, and wasn’t a totally conscious decision on Johnson’s part from the get-go.

The 3rd Rock kid has had a whirlwind of success lately, in a number of films popping up. I’m glad to see it, and I’m very glad to see him demonstrate range outside of the wistfully ignoble nerd he’d patterned before. If 500 Days of Summer was his legacy and apotheosis, I would weep for him. And I find it more a testament to his skill and less to Bruce Willis’ seniority that they dressed him up with prosthetics and makeup to look like Bruce, and not vice versa. Could Willis act like the 3rd Rock kid? Yeah, I dunno. The opposite is now a proven subtle success.

Paul Dano gives another extravagantly flamboyant performance, quite different from any previous, but is unfortunately cut brief. Piper Perabo I didn’t realize was in this film until I checked the credits, because she blends into a showgirl flusie such that I could barely recognize her from the more swashbuckling spy caper series on the USA Network. One last thought on the actors: I think Jeff Daniels, who plays a kingpin sent from the future, isn’t given his just dues. Quite contrapositive from veteran actor William Hurt, who overacts while underperforming, Jeff Daniels underacts while overperforming. He’s a lunch pale Yooper and doesn’t exhibit the dramatic personality of a Dano, but can always deliver a high caliber nuanced supporting role.