Rian Johnson's first film, “Brick,” was a high school film noir so shrouded in mock-tough guy dialogue and exhaustively detailed mood that it forgot to tell a compelling story.
“The Brothers Bloom” fell in love with the concept of con games and plot reversals, until a viewer couldn't believe or care about anything taking place on screen, because it would likely be revealed as a trick a few minutes later.
His new “Looper” is his most accessible project yet, but it's still tangled in genres, influences and references.
“Looper” is fundamentally a time-travel story, which the film's dialogue itself notes, and Johnson works very hard to play within the rules. Our "present day" is 2044, in a Kansas where poverty and homelessness are rampant, and the only people who seem to have any money are criminals.
In particular, "Loopers." In the future's future, about 30 years hence, time travel has been invented and immediately outlawed. However, the underworld has the technology, and they set up a plan for perfect murder: When they want someone dead in the future, they send him back to a particular moment and place, where a Looper assassin waits to blow him away the instant he appears. The body doesn't even exist in the future.
The wrinkle, and the reason the assassins are called "Loopers," is that at some point the killer will "close the loop" by killing his own future self. At that point, he knows he's got 30 years to spend his riches before his time, so to speak, will come.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a highly successful Looper, with hundreds of silver bars hidden under the floor of his apartment. Then everything goes wrong: His future self (Bruce Willis) appears, and being Bruce Willis, he gets away.
Now everyone is after both versions of Joe. Also, in the future a mysterious, vicious new gang boss known as the "Rainmaker" is closing all the loops at once for unknown reasons.
After about an hour, it's as though Johnson got bored with all that, and felt like he had to move on to higher levels of the video game in his head. The movie adds more meta-references: “12 Monkeys,” “Witness,” “The Terminator,” and Willis’ own action-movie history. Plus there’s a whole other Stephen King-ish plot going on (some in 2044 have telekinetic abilities), which ultimately subsumes just about everything else in the story.
It's all too much. Each piece of the story is effective on its own, but when combined in Johnson's blender, the tastes detract from each other instead of combining. Also not helping: The fact that even in the realm of science-fiction, there's no genetic universe in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt could age to become Bruce Willis.
For all this, “Looper” is well worth seeing. Johnson has more imagination than any half-dozen other genre filmmakers combined, and there are terrifically surprising and impressive moments here.
The production design makes good use of a limited budget to create a believable future, and the cinematography and editing by Bob Ducsay are first-rate.
One day, Johnson will figure out how to retain his inexhaustible appetite for stories and films while honing them all into one precise piece of narrative. “Looper” isn't quite that film.
LOOPER – R – Rian Johnson – Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt – 119 minutes