reviews of Looper and Dredd 3D

By Jordan Minter

I don’t want to talk about Looper. Just as Bruce Willis’ character, Old Joe, in Looper says, “I don’t want to talk about that time travel bullshit,” I don’t want to talk about time travel either—as always, Bruce and I know our limits. But since he talks about time travel anyway, I might as well talk about Looper as well, and we’ll both talk about something we don’t want to talk about, but maybe for different reasons. Looper is director Rian Johnson’s third film. I adored his first two, the noir in high school, Brick, and the let’s-go-around-the-world-having-fun fantasia, The Brothers Bloom, and kind of wondered how he might handle the conceit of time travel, even though, like Willis’ Old Joe, I’d rather pass.

I have a hard time with time travel movies and so should you. They simply do not work. They make absolutely no sense at all and that’s saying a lot when you consider that what we’re talking about are Hollywood films! Even when they half-work, they have to engage in such hyper-kinetic back flips of pseudo logic that you want to cry out, “Stop, you’re working too hard to make this work, listen to Old Joe! Listen to Old Joe!” The only time machine movie that works effortlessly is Hot Tub Time Machine, but that’s because the movie thinks time travel is stupid and thinks that you should think it too. So I didn’t want to see, experience or think about Looper. But I had to go: Johnson’s first two films, the great Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Willis, the only action movie star from the eighties who has somehow managed to stave off time, and well, there you have it, I might finally get the time travel movie I never wanted.

Looper is young Joe’s story (Gordon-Levitt), an assassin who lives thirty years in the future. This future is dark and desolate, but apparently not as dark and desolate as the future thirty years from young Joe’s time in which Old Joe (Willis) lives. To keep it as simple as possible, gangster’s thirty years from the story we start with, young Joe’s, send people they don’t want to have existed back in time to be killed by assassins called Loopers. The reason we are given is because it is almost impossible to dispose of a body in the future... right. Why? Of course. So leaving all sorts of questions behind or in the future, like why don’t they just kill the person themselves then send the body back through time, the first part of the story deals with the moral dilemmas young Joe faces as he watches fellow Loopers have their “loops closed”. Having your loop closed is retirement for Loopers, which consists of killing a thirty-year older version of yourself and then waiting thirty years to get nabbed, sent back through time and then getting killed by a younger version of you waiting to kill you. Hmmm.
Time is on Bruce Willis' side
Now it’s impossible to say anymore about the plot without giving too much away or solving the problem of space-time, but let’s say watching Looper is like watching three separate short films that have the general theme of destiny holding them together. And this is where Johnson, Gordon-Leavitt and Willis start to work a kind of time travel or at least movie magic. The film is so good on so many levels that you want to give in to its conceits, and yet that’s what makes it almost impossible to talk about. Talking about Looper makes me feel like I’m stuck in the past while trying to describe your future. I know what you know but can’t tell you about what I know or you won’t know it right. You might ask, “Jordan, is it one of those twist ending films that is really only worth watching once?” I’d say, “No, friend, you’ll have to wait when you see it in the future.” What’s nice about Looper is that we have a sense of some of the surprises from the beginning and the beauty is really in watching the actors respond to those surprises that we already know, so in a way the film does solve one aspect of the time-space problem or at least time travel movies.

Your makeup is subtle, like a lotus flower
So I guess I’m saying time travel reviews are about as distracting as time travel movies. But in the spirit of appreciative criticism I should add that if time travel is a huge narrative distraction, the same could be said of Gordon-Leavitt’s Bruce Willis look alike makeup. Yes, that’s what I said, Gordon-Leavitt’s Bruce Willis look alike makeup. But Gordon-Leavitt is so good at portraying Willis as Old Joe that I found myself laughing out loud at his spot on performance, which snapped me out of my suspension of disbelief, but yet it was so over the top enjoyable that I snapped right back in…to disbelief, but in a good way. Where does that leave us? I have no idea, so since we’re caught in the future talking about the past let’s give Dredd 3D a whirl.

Dredd 3D is the second foray into the world of Judge Dredd, the first being the Sylvester Stallone vehicle titled Judge Dredd, set in a post-apocalyptic future, which resembles the post-apocalyptic future of Looper, which both borrow from Children of Men, in which Judges are the only law enforcement in the overcrowded Mega-City One. The idea is that the Judges fulfill all roles of the justice system, judge, jury, executioner, and Dredd, portrayed by ever-growing cult film hero Karl Urban, is among the best at his multi-tasking profession. The story follows an unusual judge applicant, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) who after failing her final exams to become a judge is given a second opportunity because of her psychic ability. You would think psychic ability would be enough to get any job. It is Dredd’s responsibility to take her on a job and assess her abilities. I wish I had been in the room at the pitch for this one: this will be an action movie about a job assessment. As you might guess the assessment situation quickly spirals out of control when Anderson and Dredd are trapped in a two hundred-floor apartment under the dictatorship of a, you guessed it, drug dealing gang leader. All he wants is to end the assessment and kill both employer and applicant and what we get is a tale of survival as the pair fights the bad guys floor by floor.

If this sounds like your standard trapped in a two hundred-floor apartment action fare, that’s because it is. The most recent attempt at the trapped in a high-rise action film is The Raid: Redemption, a beautiful martial arts film from Indonesia. And if Dredd 3D was just an action film then it wouldn’t compare to The Raid. However, Dredd 3D, is not just an action film and the reason it is not just an action film can be summed up in two words: Alex Garland. Garland has made quite the name for himself as a screenwriter, delivering high-tension sci-fi scripts that go much deeper than the usual popcorn fare and most non-popcorn fare, too. The writer of 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go, is the best thing to happen to science-fiction cinema since Phillip K. Dick. Now, that may seem grandiose, but even at this early stage of his career there are few people who can match his growing and significant body of work. It is the depth of his characters, his philosophical concepts, and his social critiques that elevate his writing and brings all those to the forefront in Dredd 3D.
That man can helmet act!
Urban plays Dredd perfectly. He’s a character that if he ever changes should not change much, as his life is devoted to one thing, the law. As the credits roll, we realize he never even takes off his helmet—that’s acting. The relationship between Anderson and Dredd is Garland at his best. When he asks her why she wants to be a Judge, especially given the statistical fact that she will probably die on the job soon and fast, she naively responds that she “wants to make a difference.” Dredd grills her on her idealism, but she holds fast, “yes sir, I believe I can make a difference.” We then watch as the two struggle to survive against unparalleled odds, but Garland doesn’t let this idea of making a difference go. When Anderson frees a criminal, Dredd barks at her, “mind explaining yourself.” Her response is beautiful, and quintessential Garland: she says that he was a victim not a criminal, and that maybe by sparing him this will be the one difference she does make. Garland’s set up is a shocker and the actors realize it with a delicacy unheard of in a 3-D action movie. Thirlby gets the purity of Anderson’s response. It’s all there is the calm of her face, and Urban shows Dredd’s appreciation of her defiance with a sneer that approaches love. After sitting through an hour and a half of sci-fi violence, to hear some sort of Marcus Aurellius like wisdom has the ability to double you over. It takes a moment to catch your breath.

Looper and Dredd 3D are both set in post-apocalyptic futures and in a weird way they are two of the most upbeat post-apocalyptic sci-fi films ever made. Both end with a kind of grace and hopefulness about human beings, with Looper pushing the idea that destinies can change for the better while Dredd 3D pushes the idea that perhaps only mercy can make a difference. What’s happened to the dystopian vision? Maybe it’s the brutality of the recent elections that have brought about a desire for a light at the end of the tunnel, or maybe people are so damned depressed these days that Hollywood realizes that there’s money to made by grafting on happy endings to variants of 1984. I’m inclined to think the latter, but if it means more films with verve and vision like these two, well, I’ll take my happiness wherever I can get it.

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