Future tiffs and fugitives: Looper and Dredd

04 October 2012

A self-selected double-bill earlier this week provided two movies whose settings are distinctly removed from our own world: in one, time travel is both possible and illegal, while in the other, two police are trapped in an impoverished mega-tower and get caught up in the hyper-violent turf war raged upon its citizens.

Following Brick (2005) and The Brothers Bloom (2009), Looper is Rian Johnson's third feature film as writer-director, and reunites him with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the star of his debut film. If Brick demonstrated an auteurist's confident and unique amalgamation of noir, its literary forbears (notably Dashiel Hammett) and Twin Peaks, Looper is on one level less flashy in its referential framework, standing more on its own feet - for better and worse. Less cohesive than the earlier film, perhaps - dealing as it does with the paradoxes and, yes, loopholes of time-travel - it is nevertheless a more impressive work that shows signs of artistic progression and much imagination.

In Kansas, 2044, against the backdrop of a prolonged economic collapse and a proliferation of organised crime, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a "looper", employed by the mob to indiscriminately and efficiently kill and dispose of people sent back from the future. Loopers are paid in the silver bricks that are attached to the backs of their victims, which they exchange for contemporary money. When a looper finds his victim's back has the more valuable gold bricks attached to it, however, his "loop" is said to be "closed": that is, the man who he has just killed is his future self, and the final pay-packet is designed to see him live the next thirty years comfortably.

For Joe, this scenario is botched: he fails to kill his older self (Bruce Willis), and the latter runs off - having come to enjoy his life and marriage by the 2070s, he is determined not to have his loop closed by the mob who wish to sever all ties with previous employees. Old Joe is in search of the boy who, he knows, will grow up to be the Rainmaker, a mysterious leader who will rule the future world single-handedly. In contrast to this, the sole concern of his younger self is to make amends and close his loop, thereby securing his own happiness for the next thirty years.

Johnson, thankfully, doesn't dwell too much on the temporal paradoxes of his plot, and while unanswerable conundrums emerge once the film has finished, the script frames legitimate if barely-explored questions, regarding the extent to which happiness may be the outcome of regulation and hard work or of a more immediate existentialism, in a mostly compelling thriller narrative that pits two versions of the same self against one another. Refreshingly, too, is the fact Johnson resists siding with Old Joe's would-be moralistic pleas to his younger self. While Willis has experienced the joys of a settled marriage enough to kill for its continuation, his character is just as naive and self-preserving as his younger, hipper incarnation.

Looper's futuristic cityscapes are for the most part left to suggestion, seen in the background of establishing shots whose main focus is the farm on which the film's second half takes place. To be sure, though early scenes take place in a Blade Runner-style world, the more conventional veneer of a science fiction film is rendered secondary as the narrative slows down both visually and rhythmically so that its central plot development - the identity of the Rainmaker and the potential ways in which his future path to evil might best be prevented - can be foregrounded.

As with many sci-fi films who take such themes as identity and moral conscience as their broader focus, there's a risk of banality or even pretension here, especially with regard to the woolly notions that one factor can determine the rest of a boy's life. In this instance, said factor is Sara (Emily Blunt), the mother and staunch defender of the boy who Old Joe suspects might be the Rainmaker-in-the-making. Though there is obviously something to be said for the formative years of our lives, the film reduces one's moral outlook to the presence of a tempering mother at an early age - that Sara and son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) have to endure the physical and economic hardships of farm life alone doesn't factor. In this respect, a fuller appreciation of what constitutes our biological and social makeup would have serviced the film better.

As problematic as its lack of dialectics is the film's narration. Granted, Gordon-Levitt's first-person address provides a comprehensible exposition of and introduction to this new world (which Johnson reportedly designed in more depth than he has evinced here), but that it turns out to be posthumous (or does it?) retroactively confuses the film - even if, "in the moment", its twist makes sense. Working through Joe's characterisation, though, the film is a surprisingly affecting drama that draws upon the consistencies - and plays with the contrasts - between Gordon-Levitt and Willis. The former's facial makeup highlights possible similarities in the nose, fulcrum and lips in particular, but it's Gordon-Levitt's slight squint and subdued indifference that gives the film both its dramatic impulse and a comic edge (whose idea, meanwhile, was it to give him such disproportionately thick eyebrows?). Comparatively inexperienced, the younger actor nevertheless shows a progression here beyond the stylish adolescence of Brick and the slightly implausible arc in The Dark Knight Rises. Willis, meanwhile, seems to have little screen-time but does a lot with it: one minute he's shedding traumatised tears at his own murderous violence, the next he's on an all-out John McClane-like last stand.

Just as the more visually intricate bustle of the city looms from afar, so the narrative here seems to bubble towards something that is less a twist than an awesome confirmation of what the characters dread and what we've plausibly gathered early on: that Cid is telekinetic ("TK") and, in fact, the would-be Rainmaker. As Cid, Gagnon is the remarkably varied newcomer who anchors each scene he's in with charm, menace, mischief... and mayhem. The film's more trailer-ready set-pieces - which have no doubt allowed it its marketable associations with Inception and The Matrix - happen in its latter stages, sending the world topsy turvy. But for all the chairs and tables that go hurtling towards the ceiling in these scenes, the film's emotional core depends finally upon the notion that "good" and "evil" are binary opposites not pre-determined - even if they are irredeemable once determined. But given Joe's final decision, even this irredeemability seems in doubt...

Such a clear-cut distinction between good and evil isn't a view shared by Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), the psychic mutant and trainee-cop who embarks upon an assessed training day with comically one-dimensional anti-hero Dredd (Karl Urban) in the film of that name. Given an ominous statistic regarding the extent of the police force's practical coverage of crime and subsequently asked by her in-field, on-the-job examiner whether she feels she can make a difference to the people they are tasked with protecting, Anderson replies in the affirmative, revealing that she herself came from an impoverished background such as that which defines the towerblock at which the duo has arrived to investigate three suspected homicides. Dredd's reply: "Admirable." It's difficult to tell if he means it or not.

Directed by Pete Travis and adapted by Alex Garland from sci-fi anthology 2000 AD's longest-running strip, Dredd is a British-made film faithful to its source, redressing previously maligned decisions to, for instance, have Sylvester Stallone's 1995 incarnation remove his helmet, and eschewing the kind of origins story that has taken up needlessly large chunks of all-too-many comic book adaptations of late. In it, Judge Dredd is a law enforcement officer with the authority to arrest, sentence and execute perpetrators of crime in Mega-City One, whose phallic towerblocks rise up from the post-apocalyptic earth, accommodating masses of the abandoned and unemployed that constitute a social underclass.

From the off, this is a graphically but also cartoonishly violent world, and Dredd's own faceless fascism sits suitably within it, an exaggerated caricature less about manliness than the sheer and self-acknowledgingly futile upkeep of some nebulous concept such as justice. Under his charge, Anderson follows him to one particular towerblock in Mega-City One, in response to three men falling to their deaths from the 200th floor, only to find that it has been overrun by the Ma-Ma Gang, whose leader (Lena Headey) "lives for violence". Taking one of the three victims' murderers, Kay (Wood Harris), into their custody, Dredd and Anderson find the towerblock is put in lock-down. Unable to find a way out, they must fight off Ma-Ma's trigger-happy henchmen in vain hope of police backup.

This simple premise recalls 2011's The Raid, but also plays out like a feature-length version of the climactic set-piece of Luc Besson's 1994 thriller Leon, in which a well-armed trained killer mounts both a defence and an attack against an army of formidably-equipped cops. Always outnumbered never outgunned, Dredd's two protagonists drive its violent and explosive scenario without so much as a blink of hesitation or conscience. Self-contained to boot, the film intervenes upon the cynical comic-book cash-in with a refreshing fuck-you. It's also very amusing at times, and contains an upbeat, electro-rock soundtrack that punctuates the film's succession of high-stakes gunplay.

The 3D is effectively restrained. Many scenes don't utilise it at all, so that its employment in those in which the drug Slo-Mo is taken by characters - and we assume their perception of the world as unfolding at one-tenth of normal speed - takes on an appropriately hyperreal quality. The best moment in this regard also recalls 2000 AD's distinctively violent artwork: a scene in which Dredd and Anderson raid an apartment and shoot those armed within it, who are also under the effects of Slo-Mo. Taken from their point of view, the scene unfolds in slow-motion as bullets burst through cheeks with bright red bubbles exploding outward (accepted as ultra-stylised, these scenes produce far less quease than that moment in which Dredd punches someone's throat in, its newly concave structure accompanied by the line, "Choke on this"). Outside of such moments, because it is set almost entirely in the claustrophobically interchangeable hallways of a concrete building, the film risks visual anonymity and repetition, something apparently compounded by Dredd himself, whose bulky frame and perpetually covered face seemingly limit the character's emotional range.

As Dredd, however, Karl Urban gives a winning interpretation of John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra's 1970s creation. Limited to monosyllabic dialogue and tough grunts, Urban manages a comic ambivalence as well as a surprising depth of feeling given the resources of his character. As such, his Dredd is a far more charming character than Christian Bale's Dark Knight, for instance, and Garland's no-nonsense script, likewise, is welcome in its lack of pretensions when compared to Christopher Nolan's franchise-courting conceptualisation of a "hero for our times". Dredd may or may not turn out to be the first of a new series of films based around the 2000AD character, but conceived and delivered as a standalone film, this is as weirdly likeable as its titular character, and Dredd is a shithead redeemed by his mutant trainee's youthful and utopian humanism.