Rian Johnson’s Looper is a good film, with touches of brilliance, but equally with a central dubious morality and the plot weaknesses inherent in any film that uses time travel as a central plot structure. The way that these central problems are addressed by Johnson, and how they interact with one another are essential to elevate Looper above mere sci-fi entertainment, in which it comfortably sits, towards a film worthy of more attention and critical debate.
This essay contains plot spoilers including the film’s ending, so if you haven’t seen it and want to, you have been warned.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as everyman Joe, a ‘looper’, in 2044, employed by gangsters in the future to kill people they send back in time, and dispose of their bodies in the past. In 2074, the gangs are taken over by a mysterious man known as ‘The Rainmaker’, who decides to close the ‘loops’, by sending back the older loopers to be killed by their younger selves. When a looper closes his loop, he knows from that point on that he has thirty years left to live. When Joe finds he is faced with his older self (played by Bruce Willis), he hesitates and allows Old Joe to escape. As the gangsters try to track down and kill both Joe’s, Old Joe sets off to find the child who will one day grow into ‘The Rainmaker’ and eliminate him in the present to change the future, a future in which his beloved wife was murdered during his capture. He knows the Rainmaker to be one of three boys born on the same day in the same hospital, and so to be sure he kills the Rainmaker, he must kill all three children. Young Joe, meanwhile, sets out to kill Old Joe (his older self) in order to protect his own life in the present. To track Old Joe down he waits at the farmhouse of Sara, whose son is one of the potential child Rainmakers.
In setting two versions of the same person against each other, Johnson deliberately clouds who is the hero and who is the villain. Who should we have sympathy with, or empathy for? Should we treat both Joe’s as the same person? These questions are made more difficult because it is difficult to admire, or like, Joe in either guise.
In the 2044 opening act we are introduced to Joe and his looper lifestyle. Addicted to eye-dropping drugs, working as a hired killer to fund a privileged lifestyle, Joe is impervious to the poverty and desolation that has crippled America. No matter how stylish Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks in his sharp suits and classic sports car, he is already an atypical film hero compared to most mainstream films. When Seth (Paul Dano), a friend and fellow looper fails to kill his future self, he turns to Joe, arriving at Joe’s apartment seeking help and sanctuary. Faced with the choice of helping Seth or keeping the money he has been hoarding to pay his way out of being a looper, Joe sacrifices his friend, sentencing him to certain death at the hands of the mob. A betrayal of this kind, putting money over loyalty and friendship – no matter how worthless and corrupted that friend may be – is an act associated not with the hero in traditional storytelling, but with the villain. Johnson is forewarning us strongly that Joe may not be a central character we will enjoy spending that much time with.
Once Joe is confronted with his future self, and we meet the Bruce Willis-Joe, we are given a montage showing us how Gordon-Levitt-Joe became Old Joe(Incidentally, Gordon-Levitt’s digitally enhanced performance mimicking a younger Willis is quite brilliant). In this we see Joe leaving America and establishing a life of crime in the gang world of China. Joe spends around 25 years addicted to drugs, committing crime, including the implication of violence and murder. Redemption comes in the shape of a wife and true love, withdrawal from drugs and retirement to a peaceful, clean life. The life of crime, where crime pays and no punishment is forthcoming highlights that Joe, in the present and the future, is someone who should not be treated as a hero. But it his story that lies at the centre of the narrative in Looper. And then the fateful day arrives when the Rainmaker’s soldiers catch up with him and murder his wife in the process of capturing him.
Establishing that Joe is a man with a dark, corrupt and guilty past (or present) goes only some way to prepare the viewer for what happens next. Old Joe, having saved the life of his younger self, sets out alone to track down the potential Rainmaker child. He has the addresses of the three potential Rainmakers and arrives at the first address, armed with a shotgun. What follows is surely one of the most controversial, and genre-defying moments in mainstream cinema in this, or any, year. That not much seems to have been made of it amongst critics, or in reviews, poses questions about society, culture and the acceptance of violence in cinema today. This lack of reaction can partly be attributed to the tactful, discreet way that Johnson films the scene, and the way it is edited in order to cut out the actual act of violence itself, but the implication and aftermath is clear.
Old Joe approaches the small boy outside his house, the boy turns to look at Joe approaching. Joe pulls out a shotgun and points it directly at the boy. The shot holds for a moment, stillness and in slow motion. Then cut to Joe walking away and then scenes of his remorse and guilt as Joe stands weeping. No blood, no violence is seen onscreen, but, as confirmed later by other characters in dialogue, Joe has gunned down at point-blank range an innocent, defenceless child. Can this be an act that can be forgiven at any time, and for any motive? And can it be forgiven as an act by the nominal (anti)’hero’ at the centre of Looper?
Part of the presentation of Old Joe as Looper’s hero comes form the casting of Bruce Willis in the role. Unlike Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the younger role, Willis has a career spanning thirty years in which, almost without fail, he has portrayed the good guy, the dependable, everyday hero. We are conditioned to the ‘Bruce Willis’ persona through his portrayal of John McClane in the Die Hard franchise and in films like Armageddon, RED, 16 Blocks, The Fifth Element and The Last Boy Scout. Even when Willis steps out of the limited range of action hero and, to his credit, takes on grittier, more challenging roles such as Pulp Fiction, Sin City or 12 Monkeys, he is invariably on the side of good. At the same time as Looper was in the multiplexes in Britain, Willis could be seen in Simon West’s The Expendables 2 alongside the other 19080’s action heroes Stallone and Schwarzenegger. It seems unfair that Willis is grouped with these two, although through their Planet Hollywood venture and The Expendables, he seems happy with the association. Unfair as throughout his career Willis has shown the ability and desire to do more than either of his action friends. He has a greater range that can handle comedy (the recent Moonrise Kingdom, Death Becomes Her) and drama (The Sixth Sense) as well as a machine gun. Think of Sly or Arnie trying to emulate Willis in any of these films. That isn’t to say Willis hasn’t had his share of disasters – Cop Out, The Whole Ten Yards or Bonfire Of The Vanities to name just a few – but at least he gets marks for trying.
In Looper, Willis gets to display his tried and trusted action ability. One scene, where he breaks out from the gangsters headquarters by killing a whole battalion of mobsters, machine guns blazing, only works because this is Bruce Willis doing it. It is enjoyable nonsense, encouraging the audience to have a knowing laugh at Bruce Willis doing what he does best. Had the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Joe been in this scene, it would have lacked that action star persona and become fatally ridiculous. In earlier scenes, Willis has already twice outshone Gordon-Levitt in action fights, highlighting his prominence as the action star. The only way Gordon-Levitt-Joe can outdo Willis-Joe in the end is by using his brain and taking his own life, thereby eliminating Old Joe. In a fight scene together, there can only be one winner here.
The confusion for the audience with Bruce Willis in Looper then stems not from any lack of heroic action, or from a dubious morality that we have seen Willis attempt to explore in previous roles. It stems from the audience being initially being asked to sympathise with Old Joe, to identify with the Bruce Willis persona, but then witnessing him perpetrating the murder of an innocent child, leaving the audience seriously conflicted, as the innate, long-established likeability of Bruce Willis is called into question.
If we cannot side with either Joe – neither the selfish, money-driven, disloyal, drug-addicted murderer in the present nor the child murdering older version – who then should demand our sympathy in Looper? Unusually for a mainstream science-fiction action film, the role could be filmed by the female lead, Sara, played by Emily Blunt, the protective mother of Cid (Pierce Gagnon), the boy who will eventually become the Rainmaker. As Young Joe waits at her farmhouse, awaiting the showdown with Old Joe, Sara tries to protect her child and property. On first appearances Sara fills the void of noble, heroic character left by the compromised Joes. As we learn more about her, and her knowledge of her son’s dangerous, murderous telekinetic powers (he has already killed, though accidentally, Sara’s sister and brother-in-law whom initially cared for him), again our sympathies are compromised. Sara abandoned Cid when he was first-born, and now refuses to leave him, naively believing she can teach him to harness his telekinetic powers. This vision of motherly nurturing is what Young Joe ultimately envisions, and in so doing decides to alter the course of the future by killing himself in order to stop his older self killing the young Cid. This seems an overly optimistic ending by both Young Joe and Sara, as we have already seen Cid lose control of his telekinetic power to devastating result. Will he be changed just by not being abandoned by his mother? A mother who already keeps a metal safe in her bedroom to which she retreats when Cid has a telekinetic episode. It puts an awful lot of faith in the nurture over nature argument.
The other troublesome side to the ending of Looper are the flaws found in any film dealing with time travel as a major plot structure. It also posits one way in which Old Joe, and the Bruce Willis persona, can be forgiven for his seemingly unforgivable sin. As Old Joe stands ready to kill Cid, another child, though not an innocent one this time, Young Joe shoots himself, causing Old Joe to disappear, having never existed beyond this point in history. If Joe never exists beyond this point in time then it negates the entire ‘child murder’ conundrum, because Old Joe never existed in order to commit the terrible act.
Except, of course, by taking this action, Looper begins to disappear into its’ own black hole of time travel paradoxes. If Joe kills himself, then he never became his older self, never had a murdered wife to avenge, was never sent back in time and never threatened to kill the Rainmaker. But if he never did any of this, then Joe would never have killed himself in the first place, and would never have faced his older self and been supposed to kill him. Joe would never have met Sara or the Rainmaker, so one assumes the Rainmaker would grow up as before… and so on. In a central scene where Old and Young Joe get to talk, Old Joe dismisses Young Joe’s questions about time travel, telling him, and the audience, not to think too much about the paradoxes of time travel. It makes his head hurt. It’s a funny, post-modern, knowing joke by Johnson, recognising that if you pick away at Looper, and all previous time travel films (see Back To The Future, Terminator) the plot unravels alarmingly quickly. But should a director, and writer, be forgiven for plot inconsistencies just because he flags up that he is aware of them? Is this scene a touch of self-referential class, or laziness? It’s tempting to let Johnson away with the loopholes because the rest of the film works so well, and while you’re watching Looper you are kept moving along at enough of a pace to skip over the plot holes (and if Johnson spent too long dealing with the ramifications of time travel, then one suspects Looper would never have been made). Once the end credits roll however, Johnson definitely doesn’t want his audience to think about the plot too much. (On a side note can Johnson be forgiven for including flying motorbikes in his vision of the future? From Metropolis to Star Trek to Back To The Future to Bladerunner flying private transport appears, and yet it seems clear that this will never come to pass, especially as the population can barely be trusted with earthbound transport!).
Given that the plot of Looper at least poses doubt if not unravels completely, can we the use the disappearance of Old Joe as a reason to forgive his earlier crime? For me, it seems a bit too much of a leap to use this a s a justifiable excuse to accept a repentant Young Joe as our saviour. his act of redemption – sacrificing himself – comes too late. If you accept Looper’s linear timeline, then Joe has already gone on to live thirty years of murder, crime, selfishness before undoing it all.
What is easier to forgive is the fact that Rian Johnson was bold and brave enough to present us with a Bruce Willis character who is not a clean-cut, clear-cut hero, but is complex, torn between love, duty, crime and morality. And credit too for Willis for taking on a role that includes such a scene as killing a child. There are many stars in Hollywood who would balk at any role featuring such a scene. The morality at the heart of Looper and the duality in pitting two versions of the same character against one another help elevate the film above a mere sci-fi action film into that rare thing – an entertaining American mainstream film that also encourages its’ audience to think.
Film Rating: 4 out of 5.
If I was to be topical, of course, this blog should be a review of the current Taken sequel taking vast amounts of box office money around the world, the imaginatively titled Taken 2. It’s not though, for one fundamental reason – I shan’t be going to see Taken 2 at the cinema. I may stumble across it on television late one evening four years from now, but even then I will probably choose to do something worthwhile with my time, like going to bed.
Why avoid Liam Neeson’s reprise of the his CIA agent-everyman-turned-vengeful-killing-machine surprise hit from 2008? Well, I imagine, and the reviews have told me, that it will be as awful as the original Taken.
I can hear the gasps now, the fanboys anger rising, the puzzled, unbelieving looks from the ardent Bryan (“he’s not the Messiah, he’s just got a particular set of skills”) Mills diehards. The smash hit sleeper blockbuster, the global phenomenon, the film that stormed the US box office – awful? Surely, I must be confused. It’s this reaction that has prompted me to blog on a film that I only saw on DVD, and a sequel I will make no effort (or pay no money) to see. Because somewhere between Taken’s release in UK cinemas, where it was largely ignored by audiences and critics alike, and the arrival of this year’s sequel, the perception seems to have grown that the original film was somehow good, or at least decent, or a cult. And frankly, it isn’t. It’s rubbish.
Jump back to September 2008. Taken opens in the UK and scrapes together an opening weekend of £1.1 million, not a disaster for a European-funded action film, but not setting the world alight. The reviews aren’t overly kind, the esteemed Empire magazine, the best barometer of popular cinema, rating it 1 out of 5 with choice comments such as:
“Liam Neeson’s ill-judged presence should not cause you to even consider going within 30 feet of a fleapit that’s screening Taken”
“a risible male-re-empowerment fantasy set in a world where a fatal headshot and rescue from a life of inter-racial rape is the best way to win back your daughter’s heart”
and summing up neatly with
“A venomous little actioner that mistakes bile for adrenaline.”
Even the reviews that rated it slightly better, such as Total Film (3/5) commented on its “dubious racial politics,” making it “both reprehensible and enjoyable in roughly equal measure.” (I disagree with the enjoyable part of that sentence).
And so, 2008 came and went, Taken came and went and the world moved happily on to happier films. Until, that is, in early 2009, when Taken was released in America. Ah, the good old U. S. of A. We have many things to be grateful for the US for, but reviving the fortunes of Taken is decidedly not one of them. The problem was that the French film-makers behind Taken, producer-writer Luc Beeson and director Pierre Morel, premeditated and cynically produced a film designed entirely to tap into Northern America’s fear and irrational hatred of a) Europe, b) foreigners, c) travelling any further east than New York and d) Arabs. Clearly, they knew what they were tapping into, and $145 million later, an inevitable sequel was on the cards, much to the surprise of the film’s star at least, as he said recently on Good Morning America, looking overwhelmingly bored at having to promote Taken 2, when asked if he was surprised at the original film’s success: “We all were. We all were. We thought we were making this tight compact little European thriller that would do reasonably well and disappear off into DVD land“.
Yes “DVD-land.” The place were even Seagal and Van Damme can still make a living, and the second part of Taken’s success. Once the word spread that America loved Taken, so DVD sales around the world, and especially in the UK rocketed. What were the film’s producers, distributors and backers to think but that the public were thirsty for more. And so, along came Taken 2, limping, lame and by all accounts as racist and violent as the original. And making just as much money.
But is the original Taken so bad? Well, yes. It’s not awful, it’s competently made by current standards, it’s certainly action-packed, and had it just disappeared without too much notice, I wouldn’t feel compelled to write this blog. But there are people who seem to hail Taken as some sort of pinnacle of action film making, as something fun and enjoyable, a bit of harmless escapism, and mention it alongside films such as the James Bond and Jason Bourne series. That is just plainly wrong, and deserves to be ridiculed, and so for that reason, let’s take a look at what Taken has to offer.
Right at the forefront is the racism. Quite simply, the French-Arabs in Taken are presented as uniformly evil. They are bad men. They have no motives for what they do, they are given no back story or explanation, they are just bad. And Arab. It’s the classic white American good guy against dark, middle-Eastern foreigners. No explanations are needed beyond that. Rolled into this is the stereotype of Europe as a bad place, compared to the safe haven of America. Having been to Paris, I can verify that within 2 minutes of arriving, nothing bad had happened to me. Not for Bryan Mills’ daughter, Kim though (Maggie Grace, looking decidely like a 25 year old playing a 17 year old). As Bryan feared on first hearing she was going with friends to that evil continent, filled with ‘foreigners’, having stepped out of the airport, Kim immediately meets a ‘bad man’, as Paris is full of them. We know he’s going to be bad because Bryan has told us Paris is full of bad men. It’s not a safe place apparently. Naive Kim, though, ever the one to ignore her father’s ridiculous warnings, is soon taken hostage.
This leads to the most famous scene from the original film, the phone call. The speech Bryan gives to the hostage taker has been lauded, repeated, put on t-shirts and posters and generally thought wonderful by people who somehow mistake this for good screenwriting. Having found Kim hiding under the bed, her hostage taker decides to hang about and see who she was calling, so picks up her mobile phone to hear Bryan Mills, halfway around the world, say the now immortal lines:
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
Lovely, all of which could simply be avoided by our evil French-Arab-baddy just hanging up the phone. But no, he waits patiently at the scene of his crime doing some very dramatic heavy breathing, just so Bryan knows he’s not talking to thin air. For some reason, the kidnapper doesn’t let out a smirk at the sheer nonsense of someone half the world away wittering on about his CV of mass murdering skills, not realising the sheer loonisy of our man Bryan being so certain of his ‘skills’. How Bryan thinks this sort of threatening will help Kim, only Bryan knows.
And so, Bryan drops everything and charges off to evil Paris and starts on his one man genocide. As pointed out by others, given he’s ex-CIA, and has numerous contacts around the globe, he decides the best course of action is to set off on his own to evil Paris. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing alone. The randomness and callousness of the violence that ensues is simply astonishing, and that any audience should champion a man who so randomly kills is quite staggering – not even made justifiable by all his victims being evil-French-Arab baddies. The nadir is Bryan’s interrogation techniques. When questioning an evil-bad-Arab-man he shoots dead, in cold blood, the man’s wife. A complete innocent. This is nothing short of murder. It is disgusting, and at the same time hilariously funny, as the misguided Bryan seems to think this will encourage our hapless baddie to talk. Which, of course, it does. Only in the world of Taken would this behaviour a) work and b) be an acceptable act by our ‘hero’.
It is all justified, of course, because Kim has been sold into prostitution, drugged and raped by the evil-bad-men of Europe. Only in action cinema, a world made possible by years of mindless Hollywood actioners, can the happy ending be that Mr. Mills, by now the murderer of over 50 people, rescues his daughter, who is, of course grateful, and never going to ignore her father’s advice ever again, once she’s shrugged off the scars of kidnap, torture, rape and drug addiction. Nothing like that sort of experience and rescue to bring a father and daughter together after their strained relationship at the start of the film – now Bryan will know what birthday present to buy Kim next year. American family bonding at it’s finest.
Part of the ‘fun’ of Taken is seeing an Oscar-nominated actor of the stature of Liam Neeson stuck at the heart of this mess. It endows the character of Bryan with a certain stature, integrity, and a strange American accent that veers into Irish every so often. This is Oskar Schindler, a star of Scorsese films, Rob Roy, Ra’s Al Ghul in Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Since he looked mind numbingly bored through all of Taken, it has revived his career to establish him as a late-blooming action star, meaning he has been able to go on and star in such clangers as Battleship, Clash and Wrath of The Titans and Taken 2. Clearly then, not a man too fussed about the quality of the script anymore, and happy to take the money over any sort of integrity. And who can blame him? If people are actually going to pay to watch this rubbish, why not? Everyone of the awful films he stars in seems to break some sort of box office record, which, ultimately, says more about the movie going public of America and the UK than it does about anyone else in this whole sorry mess. With Taken 2, Neeson even looks bored promoting the monster he’s created. He can’t even be bothered to stand up for the film’s poster. He looks a man who knows what he is doing is wrong. And (having only seen the trailer, not the film) why does he let his family stay in evil Europe again? Haven’t they learned about the evil-bad-foriegners?
Taken is a bad film, Taken 2 is by all accounts worse. Mysteriously in Empire magazine it gets one star more than it’s predecessor despite being surmised as “The first one offered the novel sight of Oskar Schindler going Commando. Unfortunately, this half-hearted sequel is low on novelty and lower on fun.” Always one to bow to whatever its’ readers tell it to do, Empire seems to have reneged on its earlier criticism and decided, like the people of America, that there was something good about the original Taken. Well, there wasn’t, and there still isn’t. It was as bad as they said it was the first time.
Film Rating: 1 out of 5.
A film review with a bit of a difference: a letter, reprinted below, published in the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine (November 2012 edition, edited slightly by the journal). I wrote them in response to a largely positive review from Thirza Wakefield, of Disney Pixar’s Brave.
It’s not so much the content of Thirza Wakefield’s review of Disney Pixar’s Brave (S&S, September) that troubled me, although I do feel we must have been watching different films given the weak character, derivative plot and desperate lack of originality or humour that I experienced.
No, it was the concluding sentence of the review: ‘The Disney/Pixar team is scaling new heights of ambition, and if Brave…isn’t the peak, who knows what fun we’re in for.’
Aside from the quality of animation that Pixar continues to develop, it is blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer that the ambition of Pixar has been on an inexorable slide ever since the unfortunate Disney take over. From Toy Story 3 to Cars 2 to the forthcoming Monsters Inc. sequel, and the recently announced Finding Nemo 2, Pixar continues to fall from once great original film-making to another division of the profit driven Disney business, churning out derivative sequels guaranteed to make a healthy profit, but designed to achieve little else. The fact that Brave is a barely disguised Disney -princess-coming-of-age story, lacking Pixar’s once famous wit, verve and confidence, only further highlights the distinct lack of ambition and originality currently pervading the studio.
I fear the longer it remains beholden to Disney, the more the great original Pixar films will be diminished by further inferior sequels and (heaven forbid) straight-to-DVD releases.
Iain Kelly, by email
Film Rating: 2.5 out of 5.