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.
What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
After contemplating the plight of the corporate middle manager a decade ago with the wickedly funny Office Space Mike Judge turns his acerbic eye toward the small business owner with his latest comedy Extract. Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman stars as a Joel Reynold a successful entrepreneur who built his humble flavoring company into a thriving concern that now stands on the verge of being acquired — for a hefty sum — by breakfast cereal titan General Mills.
But just as Joel is poised to realize his dream of selling his company and retiring early everything begins to fall apart. A rash of petty robberies creates discord among his employees. An attractive flirtatious new employee (Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Mila Kunis) leads him to ponder cheating on his aloof unaffectionate wife. And worst of all a lawsuit stemming from a freak accident on the floor of his factory threatens to bankrupt the company. The confluence of personal and professional crises soon has Joel on the precipice of disaster.
Scattered throughout Extract are the seeds of a really clever comedy on par with — or even surpassing — the venerable Office Space. The cast is certainly terrific: Bateman is the perfect choice for the beleaguered cynical yet well-meaning Joel; the always great J.K. Simmons (Burn After Reading) makes a fine counterpoint as his blunt no-nonsense second-in-command; Kunis is a superb comic femme fatale as a manipulative con artist at the heart of the pivotal lawsuit; legendary KISS frontman Gene Simmons is an inspired choice to play a shady ambulance-chasing attorney — an occupation he no doubt would have chosen had he not gotten into rock and roll; even the much-maligned Ben Affleck is effective as Dean a stoner barkeep who dispenses a hazardous combination of bad advice and hallucinogenic drugs on his best friend Joel.
For all its impressive ingredients Extract makes for a surprisingly tepid dish. Much of the same sly wit and clever characterizations that made Office Space such a delight can be found in this film but not in amounts great enough to sustain it. Most bothersome about Extract is the fact that Kunis’ character heretofore the catalyst for much of the story’s action essentially disappears for the latter third of the film. Almost as an afterthought she’s tossed a brief epilogue during the closing credits that serves to tie up all the loose ends related to her character. It’s emblematic of the movie as a whole.
One aspect of Extract that does pay off is a great subplot involving Dustin Milligan as Brad an empty-headed gigolo Joel hires as part of a disastrously ill-advised scheme to get his wife Suzie (played by SNL’s Kristen Wiig) to cheat on him first — thus clearing the ethical roadblocks (in his mind at least) for his unimpeded pursuit of Kunis’ character. But Brad ends up getting a little too wrapped up in his work making multiple follow-ups to Suzie and ultimately falling in love with his "client." The “break-up” scene between slow-witted Brad and exasperated Suzie is one of Extract’s highlights.
When infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) gets captured in late 19th century Arizona the plan is to transport him to a train en route to Yuma prison(leaving at 3:10 of course). But in the 1800s bringing someone to justice is as arduous as it sounds especially since horses are the only mode of transportation and their carriages the only place to house a prisoner. Across “town ” rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is struggling mightily to support his wife (Gretchen Mol) and kids (Logan Lerman and Benjamin Petry) following a drought and needs to build a well for his family. So when he receives a nominal financial offer to help transport the notorious felon he jumps at it dutifully and desperately. While on the trail that leads to the train station no amount of physical or verbal threat is too much for Wade to break free of with ease. But when it comes to the law-abiding rancher for whom Wade has a certain respect his escape becomes much more complicated than getting out of handcuffs. 3:10 to Yuma’s pairing of Batman and Cinderella Man is perfect in concept and execution and watching the two stars is more than a sight to behold—it is transfixing like watching any two longtime professionals make something difficult look easy. It’s the first of two such powerhouse pairings for Crowe this fall—he co-stars with Denzel Washington in November’s American Gangster—and if this small sample size is any indication big-name costars bring out the best in him. Crowe evokes the kind of real humanistic villain that could only exist in a Western and by playing Wade with equal parts amiability and evil the Oscar winner turns in what is probably his most purely charismatic performance to date. Bale’s character on the other hand—and per usual—is loath to crack a smile a quality the actor has mastered. The Yoda of dialect Welsh-born Bale also has no difficulty switching over to Ol’ West speak but it’s the way he conveys the rancher’s stoicism and will that makes him even more credible. Among the supporting turns Ben Foster (Alpha Dog) stands out as a cranked-up trigger-happy member of Wade’s gang and stalwart Peter Fonda is perfectly cast as a tough ‘n’ gruff bounty hunter. When director James Mangold turned Johnny Cash’s life story into Walk the Line it was the romantic version of a much darker tale. For 3:10 to Yuma a remake of the beloved 1957 Glenn Ford-starrer Mangold gives the Western the same treatment. In attempting to reel in today’s action-happy audience Mangold waters down the drama and speeds up the pace. Minor tweaks for this modern update equal a bit of a departure from true Western style with the dialogue for example as snappy as one of today’s action comedies. But it’s all in good fun. The Old West looks completely authentic and the unforgettable ending is perhaps made possible by the director’s innocuous first two acts. Even so his efforts and those of the screenwriters (Derek Haas Michael Brandt and Halstead Wells who wrote the original) aren’t enough to perform CPR on the Western—not that it’s fair to rest the fate of entire dying genre in their hands.
You may not have heard of George Jung before this but you quickly learn that whoever was doing coke in the '70s and '80s (and according to this movie who wasn't) was probably sniffing his stuff. This biopic tracks Jung's travails from his troubled poor boyhood to his pot-dealing days in California to his life as a millionaire cocaine trafficker for the Colombian Medellin cartel. The party has to end sometime and for Jung it does when he's repeatedly busted eventually loses his family and ultimately destroys his life.
Johnny Depp might just get an Oscar nod next year for his performance as a regular guy who turns into the foremost drug distributor in U.S. history. But in all honesty he's startlingly one-note (couldn't he change his facial expression just once? A millionaire drug dealer must have had fun sometime). Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths are terribly miscast as his parents (which one is Depp supposed to take after?) although Liotta is quite good as Jung's heartbroken but accepting father. Penélope Cruz goes overboard as Jung's hateful wife and clunks her way through her lines; her bad wigs make it even worse. Now an open plea to casting directors everywhere: Please put Paul Reubens in your next movie. Without overdoing it he's great as a femme hairdresser who becomes the first to introduce Jung to his life of crime.
After the schmaltzy beginning showing Jung's childhood the movie cruises into high gear using nifty camerawork and freeze-frames to convey his thrilling rise to trafficking stardom. Then a little over the halfway point the film loses a lot of steam and starts exuding sap. Maybe it's the subject matter maybe it's the direction but the tear-jerking last half hour doesn't support its snappy carefree start. Depp looks as intense celebrating his birthday as he does when his family leaves him; moreover Jung seems to have had no moral concern for his actions (except where it affected him). So while you do feel sorry for the guy you aren't as sorry as the film implies you should be. The movie tugs unrelentingly at the heartstrings the coup de grace a full-screen mug shot of the wretched real-life inmate Jung.