12 Monkeys, action films, Blade Runner, Boreno, Brick, Bruce Willis, chase films, cinema, closing the loop, Conan the Barbarian, drama, dystopian future, Farewell to the King, Film auteurs, films, grim future, headhunter tribes, historical dramas, hitmen, island paradises, Japanese fleet in the Pacific, John Milius, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, jungle combat, kings, Looper, Movies, Nick Nolte, Rian Johnson, romance, sci-fi, telekinesis, Terry Gilliam, The Big Lebowski, The Brothers Bloom, The Rainmaker, time travel, war films, World War II
After beginning the day with a couple of Oscar-nominated documentaries, I figured that I’d end it with a film where Nick Nolte becomes king of Borneo and Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt share the same face. Welcome to the world I live in, ladies and gentlemen: it’s a strange one.
First of all, take a moment (or two) to marvel at the glory that is the above poster for Farewell the King. Nolte giving his best Blue Steel…burning huts…lots of buff dudes with machine guns…that, my friends, is what we commonly call one kickass film poster. Doesn’t matter what the film is about: a peep at that one-sheet and I’d hightail it to the theater post-haste!
Now that your eyes have been bathed in badassery, let’s take a look at the fella that wrote and directed Farewell to the King: John Milius. You might know him as the guy that wrote and directed Conan the Barbarian (ie: the awesome one) and the original Red Dawn. You might also know him as the guy who wrote the screenplays for Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, Apocalypse Now, Jeremiah Johnson and A Clear and Present Danger. Or perhaps you know him as the creator of the cable show Rome. Barring that, you may know him (peripherally) as the inspiration for John Goodman’s Walter in The Big Lebowski. Now…taking a look at all of these disparate pieces that make up John Milius, can you take a wild guess at what awaits within Farewell to the King? Yes, friends and neighbors: we’re about to enter the mystical kingdom of Testosteronia.
Due to my father, I was a huge fan of Milius before I ever knew it. Growing up, the Dirty Harry series was just about the closest thing we got to the gospels: I’d already seen the entire series by the time I was a pre-teen and I pretty much had the first two, Dirty Harry and Magnum Force, memorized. I was also completely obsessed with sword-and-sorcery stuff by that point, so Excalibur and Conan the Barbarian got watched at least once a day. Add to that my equally hardcore interest in Apocalypse Now and I was, essentially, an intense Milius fan that had absolutely no idea who the dude was. Classic me, as it were.
As far as plot goes, Farewell to the King is equally as gonzo as anything in Milius’ back-catalog. A British officer and his radio operator land in Borneo, during World War II, in order to whip up local support against Japanese forces in the area. They find a friendly response from a local tribe only to wake up the next morning as captives: it seems that these natives might be the kind normally found in old jungle epics. The difference, however, is that those other tribes didn’t have Nick Nolte as their king.
You see, Nolte was an American soldier during the war, taken prisoner by the Japanese but escaped to the jungles of Borneo. Once there, he was taken captive by the local tribe of headhunters, saved from being turned over to the Japanese due to his dreamy blue eyes (no joke: the women of the village stage a revolt because they can “see the ocean” in his peepers…what a dreamboat!), became leader of the tribe after beating their chief at deadly hand-to-hand combat, fell in love and married one of the locals and managed to unite all of the smaller tribes in the area into one mega-tribe (of which he’s chief, natch). Whew! That is one busy Mystical White Man there, isn’t it!
Learoyd (Nolte) is pretty sure that he can just ignore the rest of World War II: after all, he has a pretty wife, several children, a really cool tropical paradise and the complete adoration of his people…why does he wanna stomp around the jungle and shoot Japanese soldiers? As the British officer gently explains, however, just because you choose to ignore the war doesn’t mean the war chooses to ignore you. Before long, Learoyd is thrown headfirst into the conflict, proceeding full throttle down a path that will lead to glorious victory, staggering defeat, mysterious cannibalistic Japanese ghost regiments, betrayal, mean Australians, Gen. MacArthur and, ultimately, sovereignty.
If it couldn’t be handily discerned from the above plot description, Farewell to the King is a deeply silly, if wildly entertaining, film. It operates along the same sort of wish-fulfillment scenario as Costner’s Dances with Wolves (white guy shows up and teaches the natives to be the best natives they can possibly be). It would be a much more offensive scenario if Milius’ film wasn’t so amiable and good-natured. It’s quite obvious that the natives stand head-and-shoulders above everything else (especially the Australians, who come across so loutishly as to make one wonder if this wasn’t some particular bias of Milius’). For one thing, they’re pretty much the only group that never betrays Learoyd (which can’t be said for the British). For the other, the village scenes are shot with such a sense of sun-dappled wonder that, especially as compared to the dreary jungle combat scenes, it pretty clear where the film would rather be spending its summer vacation.
Ultimately, there’s really one main reason to hunt this flick down (unless you happen to be a Milius’ completest or tropical island enthusiast): the marvelous Nick Nolte. It’s quite wonderful to witness Nolte in all of his buffed-out, leonine glory, especially when he manages to take the character to levels normally reserved for the Nic known as Cage. He strikes a terrific balance of level-headed, village elder and wild-eyed Bornean Rambo and it really works. Less successful, possibly by contrast, is the British officer, played by Nigel Havers. Havers spends most of the film looking sheepish, as if he’s constantly preparing to apologize for something. There are times when the approach works for the character but it usually has the effect of making his Capt. Fairbourne somewhat of a non-entity.
So what do you get with Farewell to the King? Well, you get some pumped-up, patriotic, Green Berets-style jungle fighting. You get Nick Nolte as the leader of a nation of headhunters in Borneo. You get some nice drama, a little character development (but not too much, mind you), plenty of action sequences and a simply gorgeous location. You get a loopy performance from John Bennett Perry (aka Matthew Perry’s dad) as Gen. MacArthur. You even get an evil, cannibalistic Japanese military unit, for good measure. In short, you get the full Milius treatment.
While it’s not my favorite genre, I’m definitely someone who enjoys a good sci-fi flick. In particular, I find myself really enjoying smaller, quirkier, more indie science fiction fare such as Primer, Timecrimes, Moon, Europa Report and Cube. I’ve got nothing, really, against the big tent-pole versions: I grew up on Star Wars and enjoyed The Matrix and Inception. There’s just something about a quieter, weirder sci-fi experience that really appeals to me. When I heard that Rian Johnson was going to be trying his hand at a sci-fi film, I knew this would be a must-see.
I’ve been a huge fan of Rian ever since Brick, a brilliant high school noir that also starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He followed that up with The Brothers Bloom, a film so magical and wonderful that I had to keep checking and make sure that Terry Gilliam didn’t create it under a pseudonym. With those two films, I knew that I’d be paying a visit to whatever particular world Rian decided to create next. While sci-fi seemed a little left-field, especially after the magical realism of Brothers Bloom, I had faith, faith which was handily rewarded.
Looper posits a slightly dystopian future, a sort of Blade Runner-lite with hover bikes, drone irrigation systems, telekinesis and time travel. It’s not quite the brave new world we might’ve once imagined, however: telekinesis is pretty much handily written off as “a bunch of assholes floating quarters” and time travel is outlawed, used only by criminal organizations as a way of dumping unwanted corpses in the past. We’ve come so far, you see, but stayed so very close to home.
We meet Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), one of the hitmen known as Loopers, who are responsible for carrying out these contracts. Loopers have it pretty good, all things considered, right up until the time they outlive their welcome. Once this happens, their bosses send the Looper’s future self through the time machine, where the past Looper will, essentially, kill himself, “closing the loop.” At first glance, the mechanics of this seem rather unwieldy, leading one to wonder whether this will be a film akin to Primer (a brilliant film, mind you, but kind of like sitting through a graduate-level physics seminar while still in middle school biology). But fear not, as Joe will later say to himself: “I don’t wanna talk about time travel stuff cuz if we do, we’ll be here all day.” Johnson gives us just enough science to hang our hats on but not enough to hang us, preferring the let the central conflict do the heavy lifting.
And what a conflict. You see, one day, Joe’s future self comes through the portal. Loopers are trained to expect that day and not hesitate: it’s their version of retirement, essentially. Not killing your future self is generally frowned on, as that results in two of you running amok in the same time period. Joe, of course, hesitates just long enough on that fateful day to allow his future self (Bruce Willis) to kick the crap out of him and head for the hills. Present Joe must now track down Future Joe in order to close his own loop, all the while avoiding the shady underworld characters that employ him. Future Joe, for his part, has a mission: he needs to find and kill the mysterious crime boss, known only as The Rainmaker, who ordered his termination, an act which resulted in the death of Future Joe’s beloved wife. If he can do this, Future Joe believes, in can change the course of time and alter the outcome. Present Joe can’t let that happen, leading to a Joe vs Joe fighting extravaganza.
There’s quite a bit more to Looper than what the above indicates but uncovering the film’s many twists and turns is part of its charm. This is a film that manages to not only marry the past parts of Johnson’s short career (the noir-isms of Brick and the magical realism of Brothers Bloom) into a thoroughly cohesive whole but to include wholly new elements to the mix. Tonally, the film really reminded me of Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, especially once it began to delve into the truth behind The Rainmaker. This is certainly not an influence I could have seen in his earlier films but the parallelism(especially once we factor Willis into the mix) really works and makes me genuinely excited to see what other new tricks are up his sleeve.
As could be expected, JGL and Willis are outstanding. JGL, in particular, deserves special praise for his portrayal of young Joe. There is, obviously, some makeup used to enhance the physical resemblance between the two actors but that in no way should take focus from JGL’s performance. He becomes Willis in such a perfect way, from the way he walks to the way he holds his head and the subtle inflections in his voice, that it’s one of the most dizzying bits of screen fakery I’ve seen in ages. His first appearance took my breath away and it’s impossible for me to think that the same amount of praise and admiration currently bestowed upon Joaquin Phoenix won’t be granted twenty-fold to Gordon-Levitt. It really is an amazing performance, so full of pathos and emotion, yet so subtle, that it reminded me of something I’d kind of taken for granted: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one hell of an actor.
As is Willis, of course, channeling the same kind of wounded intensity that made his performance in the aforementioned 12 Monkeys so riveting. Cocky, self-assured Bruce Willis is a mighty kickass dude. Quiet, brooding Bruce Willis, however, often makes for a better film. His interplay with JGL is great, especially in a diner sit-down that seems to parody the inevitable “meeting of the twins” scene in like-minded films. I still buy Willis as an action hero, to a point, and Looper makes sure not to cross that point in any manner as egregious as the Expendables films. For his part, JGL convincingly pulls off the action-oriented material, leaving one to hope for more roles like this in his future.
As a whole, the film works exceptionally well. The special effects scenes, especially one involving a bonkers version of one of those “assholes floating quarters” doing a whole lot more than that, are excellent and many of the kinetic fight sequences reminded me of the fights in The Matrix, although much less flashy. There are some really deep issues explored here, issues that help make the powerful ending particularly resonant. Rather than being brazenly manipulative, the ending comes organically from the journey that Present Joe has been on, allowing it to seem more natural than mechanical.
At the end of the day, I found myself liking Looper quite a bit, maybe even more than Inception, despite the more ambitious scope of Nolan’s film. Like Brick, Looper is a tightly-plotted examination of loss, responsibility and moral obligation, a film that is not afraid to ask (or answer) some pretty big questions. It also manages to wrap science fiction into a noir cloak in a way not seen since those fabled attack ships were on fire, somewhere over by Orion.