Looper: dead on time

Must be great fun mucking about with time travel scenarios if you’re a writer, particularly if you’ve got the wit and discipline necessary to convince your audience that you’ve successfully resolved all the headachy paradoxes that tend to crop up when you send people back into their own pasts. Who knows, you might even come up with something as brilliant and fun and clever as Back To The Future, or as terrifying and fun and clever as Blink (still Steven Moffat’s greatest contribution to Doctor Who), or as heart-tugging and fun and clever as Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I liked so much I couldn’t bear to watch its big screen adaptation.

Or, and a bit more pertinently to the subject at hand, maybe something as narratively corrugated but emotionally resonant as Terry Gilliam’s rendering of David and Janet Peoples’s script Twelve Monkeys, in which Bruce Willis gets sent back in time in order to prevent a catastrophe, but ends up spending much of his time shuffling about in a bruised and drugged-up state, failing to convince anyone of anything much between being moved to tears by hearing old rock’n’roll songs on the radio. Bruce takes another trip to his own past in writer/director Rian Johnson’s new film Looper too, though he’s not nearly so sympathetic in this one. Looper has been touted as a bit high-concept, with publicity and reviews proclaiming its rigour in addressing and working out its knotty chrono-contradictions. It’s certainly something you have to keep paying attention to in order to reap full benefit, though I’m not sure it’s quite as ingenious as the hype suggests.

Looper‘s set a bit in the future, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Joe earns a living bumping off blindfolded and trussed-up victims that get sent to him through time by shadowy crime bosses thirty years even further into the future. It’s quite a tidy set-up actually – no inconvenient corpses hanging around for the bosses, and a body with no identity attached to dispose of in the nearest furnace for the hitman, or looper as they’re known. The twist in the tale comes when it becomes clear that the bosses have started to clear their houses by sending back future versions of the loopers for disposal, often by the younger version of the same man – inevitably Joe gets forced into desperate measures when his older self (hello, Bruce) appears and manages to dodge his fate.

This is all pretty intriguing, and as a bonus Johnson has realised an effective and credible vision of a run-down future, where homelessness, drug addiction and general moral malaise co-exist with sleek, beautifully designed technology and the inevitable souped-up hoverbikes. It’s nowhere near as immersive as Blade Runner, but it’s up there with Minority Report. And the plot mechanics are worked out pretty well too, with just enough voice-over and flash-backs (or are they flash-forwards?) to carry the exposition without spoiling the flow. Given the amount of time given over in the first half to establishing a grimy urban milieu it’s surprising and refreshing that the last act takes place mainly in the sun, around a quiet isolated farmhouse. Despite a couple of chase’n’fight sequences this isn’t really an action film and its best scenes are those featuring just two people talking quietly, of which there are a number. Emily Blunt plays the woman living on the farm with just her young son for company and she’s really good, although she didn’t half remind me of Uma Thurman at times. Gold star to the little boy playing her son too, and to a wonderfully rumpled Jeff Daniels, who gets all the funny lines in the film as a world-weary local mob boss.

But despite all this thoughtfulness and care I couldn’t really warm to the film, probably because of the over-riding tone more than anything else: it’s just too goddamned noir. I had the same problem with Johnson’s previous film Brick, in which everyone seemed to be in a competition to out-pokerface each other with ultra-laconic put-down lines and pithy and fatalistic character summaries. Gordon-Levitt’s obviously gone to a lot of trouble to perfect Willis’s mannerisms (and the prosthetic team have given him a rather splendid flat-ended nose to help sell the illusion) but I just didn’t like his character, and once Willis starts acting like the Terminator (hey, another time-travel reference), blowing away teams of hired goons in order to protect just one person, I went right off the older version too. I guess you have to be Bogart himself too really tickle the gland in me that reacts to hard-boiling. And if that wasn’t enough to put me off, I also didn’t much care for the fabled denouement, which is simple and brutal (good), but doesn’t have nearly as much effect on the supporting players and the world they live in as it ought to have (bad). In my opinion.

So: not enough jokes, too much cold-blooded killing and not a flying DeLorean to be seen anywhere. But anyone who’s been pining for the sight of Bruce Willis in a blood- and sweat-stained white T-shirt should step right this way.

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