Hollywood has a difficult relationship with science fiction. Whether they're translating classic sci-fi stories into brainless action movies or too caught up in the otherworldly details there's always something they can't seem to get right about the imaginative genre.
Looper defies the odds by fleshing out a unique future world while honing in on a specific story with real people at the center — a balance that defined works by greats like Bradbury Asimov and Dick. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper an assassin for the mob bosses of the future who use illegal time travel to send back their targets for disposal. It's an easy lucrative life — one that affords him a party lifestyle of fancy cars and drops (drugs taken through the eye) albeit with the added knowledge of a definite grisly end. Eventually the mob "closes the loop" on its employees finding the Looper in the future and sending them back to be offed by… themselves. When it's Joe's turn to end his own life he's outsmarted his future self (Bruce Willis) escaping Joe's grasp. Driven to fulfill his duties as a Looper Joe goes on the hunt to kill himself.
Director Rian Johnson's Kansas City of 2044 feels appropriately lived in and extended from present day. When Joe's not blasting people away shrouded by the stalks of a cornfield he's dining on steak and eggs at a local diner. It's only the casual presence of hovercycles mutant telekinetics and the occasional visitor from the future that would give away the action of Looper isn't happening today. The realism gives Joe and the metropolis around him a necessary grit — there is danger and violence and pain in this world and when Johnson rouses up an action sequence there's something on the line.
Looper's greatest flaw is that it steps away from the confrontation between Young and Old Joe sending the two in different directions as they pursue answers to the film's spoilerific MacGuffin. On a farm away from the city Young Joe crosses paths with single mother Sara (Emily Blunt) who may hold the key to what Old Joe needs to survive. After being introduced to an ensemble of delightfully wicked characters — including Looper coordinator Abe (Jeff Daniels) Young Joe's sleazy coworker Seth (Paul Dano) and hotshot marksman Kid Blue (Noah Sagan) — plus Young Joe's stripper with a heart of gold confidant Suzie (Piper Perabo) Looper takes a sharp left turn leaving most of the cast in the dust. The interesting sci-fi mosaic slows down and enters a new chapter and it's rarely as engrossing as the first half.
When Willis and Gordon-Levitt are at odds Looper is simply magic. Nathan Johnson's industrial score pounds away as the two fight to stay alive all while grappling with the implications that come with glimpsing into your own future. One riveting sequence follows the timeline that played out before Old Joe tinkered with the space-time continuum a roller coaster through the years after the events of the film that see Gordon-Levitt evolve into Willis. The montage is a playground for Johnson's visual style. He never misses a beat.
For sci-fi nuts Looper corrects the past with an understanding of what makes the genre more than just an array of tropes and iconography. There are shaded characters duking it out in Looper's chaotic web of time travel logic and while their arcs fizzle out without much pay off they're a joy to watch.
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WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
During the 2000 election Dee Roberts a 24-year-old African-American mother of four working as a waitress in a small Texas town is wrongly accused of being a drug dealer and dragged off to jail even though there is no evidence. The D.A. tries to force a guilty plea in return for release as a convicted felon but she refuses and with the help of the ACLU and a former narcotics officer she risks everything including custody of her kids to fight the Texas justice system.
WHO’S IN IT?
Newcomer Nicole Beharie is given the daunting job of portraying the real-life Dee Roberts and does a nice job showing the determination of a woman struggling against racial bias in an attempt to clear her name. The always reliable Alfre Woodard is cast as her cautious mother but has relatively limited screen time. Michael O’Keefe comes off as a Southern stereotype playing the powerful local D.A. as does Will Patton in the more sympathetic role of a former narcotics officer involved in Dee’s defense. There are some nice brief moments from Charles S. Dutton as a Reverend and rapper Xzibit but the supporting standout is Tim Blake Nelson as the determined ACLU lawyer trying to win justice against long odds.
American Violet should be applauded for bringing an appalling miscarriage of justice to light detailing that racial bigotry and injustice are still prevalent even at the dawn of a new millennium.
The story is presented so flatly by director Tim Disney and writer/producer Bill Haney that Dee’s remarkable journey comes across as a yawner instead of the inspirational tale it wants to be. This version is more like a routine Lifetime TV movie than a feature film and unfortunately has been populated mostly with characters who may be based on fact but come off as hopelessly stereotyped.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Skip ‘em both and wait for the basic cable run. It’s free.