Sometimes a trailer's ability to sell a novel concept can make you forget its otherwise ordinary construction. Such is the case with the trailer for Rian Johnson's Looper, a clip whose pervasive stylish “whoa” factor offsets the reality that, formally, it's all quite familiar. A time-travel actioner, Looper reunites Johnson with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of the writer-director's breakthrough cult fave, Brick. The trailer suggests that the collaborators are steering toward the mainstream and moving away from the impenetrability of Brick's talky mystery, but an interest in noir remains firmly intact, and it yields aesthetic bonuses that also trump the requisite trailer beats.
In voiceover, Gordon-Levitt's assassin (or “Looper”) dishes the dirt about his job: whacking mob casualties from 30 years in the future, where the invention of time travel has allowed gangsters to get rid of bodies by beaming them into the past. It's occasions like these when exposition is given a major pass, and viewer hand-holding is forgiven thanks to heady plot details. Amid the rest of the film's enticing elements (the makeup effects add much to the appeal), hearing Gordon-Levitt's character explain that he's suddenly tasked to off his older self (Bruce Willis) recalls Ellen Page's wide-eyed play-by-play in Inception, which was criticized by many but enthralling nonetheless. Fascination makes explanation go down easy—this is why The Hunger Games plays so well despite an overall lack of nuance.
One might accuse Johnson of taking a page from Christopher Nolan's book if not for the noir-ish blood coursing through this comparatively modest director's work. From the start, this preview doesn't look like it’s touting a film that takes place in the present, but rather in a slick and smoky 1940s milieu, where men grease their hair, eat in diners, and close deals in shady, nonspecific city apartments (in Johnson's view, what is old is continuously new again, as the gangsters of “the future” are shown in Dick Tracy fedoras, and captured in grainy film stock evoking old photos). Aside from fast new cars and live nude girls that promote contempo sex appeal, there's precious little in the trailer to mark events as being in present-day. Gordon-Levitt's Anton-Chigurh-style blaster could be from decades back, and even the Loopers' payments, evidently strapped to the backs of their targets, are good, old-fashioned gold bars.
The trailer closes with a rather unremarkable montage, which is a perfect foil for its parting shot of adrenaline. Houses explode, guns go off, characters fall from great heights, and recognizable side players are given smidgeons of screen time (there's Emily Blunt wielding a shotgun as a presumable love interest, and scruffy clown Jeff Daniels warning of the obligatory quantum-leap side effects). Scored to an upbeat techno track, the nimbly-edited coda is dishearteningly generic, right down to Gordon-Levitt's final point-and-shoot hand gesture. Fortunately, by then the trailer has already cast an arresting spell.
R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.