Friday, October 5, 2012

Cinema 2012: Looper stupor

What is it about time travel that attracts filmmakers? And what is it about time travel movies that nearly always makes them break down before the final reel?

You have to give a nod to the concept of "Looper," namely, senior hit men being sent 30 years back in time to be whacked by their younger selves. Unfortunately, the movie from 2012 that writer/director Rian Johnson cobbled together around this one-liner of a concept does not hold up.

To his credit Johnson uses his concept as the premise for a morality tale about mankind's vicious circle of violence. But Johnson wrongly develops a back-story device into a weighty subplot that sinks the movie just when it begins to rise. Instead of giving us more of a time-displaced hitman on the lam from his one generation-younger doppelganger, and the possibilities it presents for portraying the paradox of free will, we are subjected to the tantrums of a supporting character: a telekinetic brat.

Emily Blunt muddles about in melodrama as Sara, the brat's single mother and brave-faced country gal who does her best to counter her son's incipient evil with a mother's love. In Blunt's defense, it is an impossibly silly role she has taken on.

Of course there are good nuggets here as well. Bruce Willis, as veteran killer Old Joe, brings to the screen his well worn persona, a veritable comfort for the moviegoer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt rocks as Joe, the Willis character's junior by 30 years. Gordon-Levitt nails a minimalist impression of Willis by capturing the cinema icon's tight-lipped expressions, partial head turns and that coiled understatement Willis has developed over a career that includes many other, much better action flicks. Gordon-Levitt's scenes with Willis are the best part of "Looper."

In a supporting role, Jeff Daniels plays Abe, a crime boss. Oddly, Abe berates Joe for not dressing originally. But there is not much of anything original in this movie. Abe, having seen the future, also advises Joe to retire to China instead of France. It's a funny line but really? Is that the newsflash Abe has brought with him from the 2070s, that China is on the rise? Makes you wonder how long this script has been gathering dust on some Hollywood shelf.

In one late scene Sara pleads with Joe to spare her son because the boy could yet grow up to be good. But when it comes to this enfant terrible, the hit man is not inclined to spare the "rod," that is, until his higher self chooses a more altruistic answer.

Still, it is hard to construe Joe's ultimate cop-out as heroic because we don't quite buy the "hit man with a heart of gold" storyline. Joe's solution is arguably "a far, far better thing" than he has ever done before but it smacks more of abdication than altruism. The life experience that might have led Joe to a selfless solution does not belong to him yet -- it belongs to Old Joe, who late in life has known a redemptive love. Yet Old Joe is bent on out-Heroding Herod, in total denial of the lessons true love might have taught him.

After nearly two hours of real time in the cineplex, "Looper" faded to black. But audience members seemed reluctant to exit the theater. It was as if they were expecting something more. I know how they felt.

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