Looper (2012, directed by Rian Johnson)
If there's one thing we've learned about Rian Johnson over his brief career, it's that he has an impeccable sense of genre. Brick understood when to adhere to the beats of the hard-boiled gumshoe film, and when to use it as a springboard for something new. Brothers Bloom, for all its (in my eyes anyway) faults still knew that the most important thing that a con/heist flick has going for it is charm, and that the inner workings of its plot are much less important than the need for the audience to care whether the heroes make it through to the other side.
Which brings us to his latest project, a gritty piece of time travel madness. A successful time travel movie, above all else, needs to keep one thing straight to work: it can't break its own rules. What those rules actually are isn't terribly important. The rules of time travel in 12 Monkeys are very different than the ones in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, or Back To the Future, or Primer, but in every case the movie establishes its rules and sticks to them. Those films don't cheat.
Looper doesn't cheat. Looper, in fact, moves like a beautiful, intricate piece of clockwork, and in doing so joins 12 Monkeys and Bill & Ted's and Back To the Future and Primer on any reasonable list of the greatest time travel movies ever made.
Here's the plot you've got to wrap your head around: it's 2049, and the world's gone mostly to shit. Joe (played with his usual laid-back aplomb by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 'looper', a mob hitman whose targets are people zapped back from 2079 to be offed, because a) forensic technology in 2079 makes it almost impossible to dispose of a body and get away with murder and b) time travel is a one-way trip backwards, and the world of 2079 is even more in the shitter than 2049 and no one has the cash to use the tech other than the mafia, so forget about some university mounting an historical expedition or any of that nonsense. A looper's job is a pretty easy one. Targets arrive at a designated place and time, hooded and handcuffed, and all the killer has to do is pull a trigger and collect the bars of silver strapped to the target's back as payment. Loopers have a limited shelf life though. At some point, just so their future bosses can neatly tie off any loose ends, a looper will find their hit has a bunch of gold strapped to them instead of silver, and they'll realize that they're just killed their future selves. They keep the gold and retire to the good life... for 30 years.
With a setup like that, it's pretty easy to predict what sets the plot in motion. A target arrives, a bit late, on Joe's landing pad and it turns out to be Joe's future self (Bruce Willis in full-on 'grizzled and not joking the fuck around' mode), only he's not hooded or handcuffed and not in the mood to have a hole blown in his chest. Young Joe hesitates, Old Joe gets the drop on him, and all hell breaks loose.
The thing is though, that's all just setup. Once the plot gets going, once those gears start whirring, Looper is simply a work of art in terms of how beautifully all those gear teeth fit together and how well the whole engine just merrily clicks along to a finale that blindsides you until you realize in retrospect that it was totally inevitable.
What really elevates Looper though, beyond an intricate and entirely satisfying plot, is the attention to detail Johnson brings to bear on the material. Biblical allusions abound. Joe(seph) as the prodigal son, his boss Abe(raham) sacrificing his looper 'children' when called on to do so (Abe, by the way, is played by Jeff Daniels, who knocks it out of the park as a guy who never lets his feelings get in the way of the job), the fact that the loopers are paid in silver... those allusions may be little more than window dressing but they add some nice grace notes to the film. The plot also borrows a lot of familiar elements from other time travel stories, and really classic science fiction in general, but Johnson has fit those elements together seamlessly into a movie that, if not what you could call new, is certainly fresh. Even the design of the world is outstanding. This is not a shiny happy glossy future. The homeless can be shot down in the streets without consequences if they seem at all threatening, and there are a lot of homeless both inside and outside of the cities. Most technology is from their recent past (i.e. our present), desperately jury-rigged to make it more environmentally-friendly (there are a lot of rusted-out cars powered by solar panels stapled to their hoods in Looper). In fact, all the tech seems to have a dirty aesthetic somewhere between steampunk and DIY, contributing to the sense of a society held together by little more shoelaces, chewing gum and a quick soldering job.
Really, there just aren't any glaring weak links here. Emily Blunt is sassy, sexy and pretty much perfect as a single mom caught in the crossfire between the Joes, while Paul Dano and Garret Dillahunt both show up and shine as fellow loopers, doing Dano-ish and Dillahunt-ian things. About the only thing that's a little off is the makeup job they give JGL to make him look like a younger Bruce Willis, but you quickly get used to it.
Looper is, quite simply, an astounding piece of work: a fantastically entertaining film and an airtight, engaging puzzle that lets you think you're one step ahead of it while it remains two steps ahead of you.
Dredd 3D (2012, directed by Peter Travis)
This is probably the single most faithful comic book adaptation to ever hit the big screen.
Now, let me be clear here: I don't think it's the greatest comic book movie ever made. That title is clearly reserved for either Dark Knight or Scott Pilgrim, or possibly A History of Violence, and there are a bunch of others (X2, for instance) I'd stack above Dredd too, but in terms of being true to its origins nothing adapted so far has come within a mile of Dredd. This film is exactly what a movie based on your old 2000AD issues should be, and I genuinely can't conceive of a Judge Dredd movie ever being any better than this.
The quick and dirty for anyone unfamiliar with the character (and by 'unfamiliar' I mean 'have only seen that abortion of a Stallone movie'): in a future America mostly destroyed by nuclear war, a small part of the Eastern Seaboard is still inhabited, with the people living in one giant metropolitan area called Mega City One. This being a dystopia, the city is a chaotic cesspool of crime and sin, and the law is represented by Judges who have the authority to arrest, try and convict criminals on the spot. The baddest of these badasses is Judge Dredd, which makes sense given his name.
In short, Dredd the character is a fascist wet dream. And what makes Dredd 3D so nearly perfect is that it embraces that idea down to its very core. The film saddles him with a psychic rookie Judge (played by a spunky and steely Olivia Thirly) who's in danger of washing out of the force, and by seeing Dredd through her eyes while he teaches her how to be an 'effective' Judge the movie effortlessly sucks you into its worldview. It quickly becomes very easy to root for Dredd, even though by any rational standard his very existence should be horrific. Dredd, as a character, is a wrong house drug raid that kills your dog and trashes your stuff taken to its logical extreme. Dredd is the living embodiment of the bureaucratic nightmare that's the real villain in Brazil, and yet you cheer for him because he wears cool gear, has an awesome gun and has good tough-guy lines, and because Karl Urban (the man behind the face shield) knows what makes him tick and does a great near-Clint Eastwood impression for Dredd's voice. In fact based on his work here, Urban's now joined my Preacher dream cast as the Saint of Killers.
Plot-wise there's little here you haven't seen before, and recently. Once you get past the setup the movie is essentially a sci-fi version of the Raid, right down to the architecture of the building. But you know what? It doesn't really matter whether this is another case of 'parallel projects intersecting' or whether Alex Garland saw a good idea he could run with. Dredd still feels like its own thing, still feels like it was ripped out of those 2000AD back issues, and that's what matters here. Dredd and the rookie get called in to a megablock to investigate three drug-related murders, the gang in control of the block lock the whole thing down so they can't escape with a prisoner who knows too much, and the two Judges have to fight their way up to escape. Cue the ultraviolence. Lots and lots of ultraviolence.
There's almost nothing bad I can say about this movie. The effects are great, the slo-mo camera work on the drug trips is great (they didn't bring in Antichrist's DoP for nothing), Lena Headey is terrifically vicious as the gang leader, the 3D is effective, Dredd doesn't talk too much and has no romantic interest whatsoever in his cute rookie partner... it gets everything right. My only nitpick is that the aerial establishing shots of Mega City One look too much like modern highways and traffic patterns just cobbled together. That's literally the only thing I found to complain about.
Having said all that... Dredd still isn't a great film. It's just about perfect, but its ambitions are small and limited by that same source material it gets so, so right. I mean, let's be honest here. I like Judge Dredd, but he's not exactly one of the greatest or most complex characters in comics history. But that's fine. No one's going to walk into Dredd expecting an Oscar winner. They're going to walk in expecting a guy to shoot and blow up a fuckload of skeevs and wastoids, and see only the lower half of his face while he does it, that's exactly what they're going to get.