Preview: Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt dazzle in unfinished SF film 'Looper'
This is not a review.
After all, for this to be a review, I would have had to have seen "Looper," which isn't set for release until about a year from now, and how would I have done that?
Let's say I was a time traveler, though, and let's say I did use my awesome power to simply see a film a little bit early. That sounds like a totally rational use of the technology, right? After all, this is the new movie by the writer/director of "Brick" and "The Brothers Bloom," and it stars "Inception" and "Dark Knight Rises" star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Motherfudging Willis, and Emily Blunt, and it's been described as a science-fiction film. What part of that doesn't sound like something I'd want to see?
At this point, of course, "Looper" is still fairly unfinished, so trying to review it as a finished film right now would be an exercise in futility. Let me offer up thoughts on a test screening of the movie that took place in Burbank Tuesday night, while trying to be delicate about spoilers while still somewhat specific in my reaction.
Right now, unfinished, with FX shots left to do and with some moments that need to be tweaked, "Looper" is the best thing Rian Johnson's made so far. By leaps and bounds. It is a movie that Bruce Willis fans will feel very comfortable filing on the same shelf where they keep "12 Monkeys" and "Unbreakable." It is a true science-fiction film, unafraid of the genre, but the movie's beating broken heart is what makes it accessible to anyone. Sony/Tri-Star have something truly special here, a small intimate personal movie that delivers a huge movie experience without ever compromising the things that make it feel so intimate in the first place.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt made a big choice here as an actor, and he's playing a make-up role. Unlike "J. Edgar," where the ongoing use of make-up became more and more distracting over the course of the film, the work in "Looper" becomes part of the texture of the world pretty quickly. It took me about three or four good long looks at Gordon-Levitt in the movie to fully understand what they were doing to him, but as soon as it hit me, I settled in and got used to it. And when it pays off, it pays off very well. He and Bruce Willis engage in a really cool and unusual actor's duet here, and when you assess their work, you have to assess how the two performances bounce off each other, how they collide, and what they say about one another.
It is an exciting piece of writing and if it were published as a SF novel in the '60s, it would have felt absolutely of a piece with the sort of humanistic, morally complex work that marked that era. It is a clever story, but never at the expense of emotion. I love that every one of the main characters in this film has a complicated emotional life, and Johnson seems determined to dig into the sorrow or the longing or the deperate need to heal driving these people. As much as the movie indulges a "boys with toys" attitude towards the world-building at times, with Johnson's glee at the act of creation almost palpable, it is ultimately a story about people making choices to either help themselves or help others. There are plenty of opportunities peppered throughout the story for people to make the wrong decisions and do something self-serving, and many of the characters take those options. The big question for these characters is how far they'll go to protect whatever it is that they consider "theirs." If you've spent your life getting to a place of happiness and peace, and someone interrupts that or burns it down, what would you do to get back to it? To restore it? To protect it? And from a parent's point of view, how far would you go to keep your child safe? To nurture their gifts, no matter what others think? These are real things driving these people to some pretty extreme places, not something as facile and amorphous as "ruling the world" or "ultimate power" or any of the things that drive so many empty blockbusters.
This is thrilling cinema, though, and Johnson displays a real knack for building set pieces in this movie, something he hasn't done before. There are so many great moments, some that pay off with a perfectly-timed punchline from a character or that lay out a series of great visual gags. It's a fun film, and several of the big moments were greeted by applause from the audience. There is an audacious element to the film. It sets up this big idea right up front, then a lot of other ideas, and then it starts to really tie them all together, and watching things fall into place, there's an excitement. It feels like you're watching someone attempt this stunt, and the closer they get to actually pulling it off, the more invested you get. Johnson's movie is incredibly ambitious, and it's a testament to the world he's created that my first question at the end of the film is "Are we going to see the story of [REDACTED] next? Because now I want to know." I'm convinced by this thing he's built, and I want more of it. I like the rules of his world, and I like the way he plays with those rules, the way he plays both to and against expectation, depending on the scene.
Have I mentioned Emily Blunt yet? Because she's great in this. Much of her screen time is spent building a relationship with Pierce Gagnon, who plays her son Cid. And this kid, who can't be more than eight or nine years old, is absolutely astounding. When people praise "Looper," and they will, I hope they remember to include praise for just how well Johnson was able to coax an adult and emotionally complicated performance out of a child. There's an art to directing kids, and I think he proves himself to be very good at it based on this one. Blunt is perfect for this sort of role in the same way that Bruce Willis is, because they both have these great eyes that always seem pre-disposed to sadness, even if they're joking or acting tough. With Blunt, she brings both maternal steel and a surface-level access to her emotions to the role of Sara, and it's pretty affecting work.
Piper Perabo is excellent in it, Paul Dano does great work in a short time onscreen, as does Garret Dillahunt. I particularly love Jeff Daniels here, and Noah Segan gets to really gnaw on the scenery as Kid Blue, a guy who works as a Looper, just like Joe (Gordon-Levitt). What is a Looper? Well, the film takes place in an era 30 years before the advent of time travel, which was made illegal as soon as it was created. The only people using it are criminals, who have figured out a great way to get rid of bodies when they kill people in the year 2070. They just drop them into a time machine, and when they appear in the year 2040, a Looper is waiting there to shoot them and dump the body. By removing the victims from the timeline, it creates a perfect crime on both ends. Joe follows a routine as he works the job, and he's able to keep it all locked down, squared away.
The film hinges on what happens when someone comes through that portal that the Looper can't shoot, for whatever reason, and what might have to happen if that victim gets loose in a timeline where they don't belong. And if it were just a cool chase movie, that would not be a bad thing. I'm impressed because Johnson takes that action movie set-up, that bare structural suggestion, and he embellishes it into something richer and stranger than that, something that really sticks.
I can't wait to see a finished version of this film. I'm not going to letter grade this because it's still so rough in many ways. But I strongly suspect that unless I have a dazzling year of filmgoing next year, we'll be having a real conversation about "Looper" as one of the best of 2012, and a major jump forward for a writer/director whose promise has been more than fulfilled.
"Looper" is set for release September 28, 2012.