How many original (that is, non-remake, reboot, sequel, prequel, or adaptation) action films get made these days? How many high concept action films? God bless the studio that greenlit Rian Johnson’s dystopian neo-noir time traveling hitman flick Looper. While it may appear to be targeting a very specific demographic, anyone who likes solid action, good writing, and great direction will be pleased.
Johnson appears to have a thing for film noir. In his debut, Brick, he successfully grafted it onto a high school melodrama; here, it’s Kansas City in 2044. While Brick was definitely more of a classic noir, Looper starts with a standard noir plot – someone is taking out all of the hitmen in town – and expands into something much grander.
The cast is solid, even if each has been better in something else. Bruce Willis turns in a better then average performance, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, appealing as they are, have to work through some distractions. In Gordon-Levitt’s case, he’s saddled with a prosthetic chin and nose that attempt to make him more resemble Willis, but instead render him slightly unrecognizable. As for Blunt, her “Kansas” accent is only slightly more believable than his prosthetics. (Two grandparents, an uncle, and two cousins are from Kansas, so I know a fake twang when I hear it.)
But Johnson’s direction and writing are what shine here. Compared to his earlier work, Looper feels a step more accomplished, as Johnson balances some of his more striking techniques – an early, drug-induced sequence is unmistakably reminiscent of his work on Breaking Bad – with classical, well shot action sequences. While Neo-Kansas City (?) suffers from a slight case of Fifth Element-itis (in the future, drugs are eyedrops!), the film’s high concept is described swiftly through an opening voice over; in a wink to its expository nature, later in the film Gordon-Levitt explains his life to Blunt using what sounds to be the same take. But Looper quickly outgrows the simple time travel gimmick, and instead becomes the intersection of Gordon-Levitt’s neo-noir, Willis’ time travel-based revenge/redemption thriller, and Blunt’s terrified parent of a violent telekinetic son story (I told you it was high concept). It’s a tribute to Johnson’s vision that the plot remains coherent and satisfyingly self-containted. If, like me, you’re kind fascinated by the narrative problems that time travel creates – both for screenplays and for real life – check out “the grandfather paradox” and “the bootstrap paradox” to truly get your nerd on.
By the way, if DC Comics really wanted to dramatize how a strange young boy’s super powers could terrify both him and his family, even though they could be a powerful tool for good, they should have hired Rian Johnson rather than Zack Snyder. As such, I’m excited to see what he does for Star Wars Episode VIII.