Looper is among the cleverest, most skillfully crafted and entertaining sci-fi thrillers of the past 20 years. Writer-director Rian Johnson, who made the smart, savvy high-school-set noir Brick in 2005, opts for a cat-and-mouse action-movie with not the easiest gimmicks driving it: Time travel. Often raising more questions of narrative logic than the filmmakers’ originally intended — and which detract from the movie’s ultimate enjoyment — the time-travel gimmick can become more trouble than is worth for all concerned. But with its swift, sure-footed pacing, Johnson’s shrewd staging and framing, and pitch-perfect performances, Looper is so winning and absorbing that any plot holes and time-travel gaffes are easily overlooked.
It’s 2044, and there’s a new breed of criminal thriving in the mercenary underground: Loopers. These are killers hired to assassinate individuals from the future, sent back 30 years — from a time when time-travel has been invented and immediately banned — by a criminal syndicate commissioned to eliminate them. Apparently, disposing of dead bodies in the future is a tricky ordeal, so it’s a better bet to ship those you want to kill back in time and have the loopers do it for you.
Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper who’s made a killing — pun intended — at his profession who works for Abe (Jeff Daniels), a kingpin in the time-travel assassination business. Business is brisk, but a wrinkle appears when the loopers discover that more and more of their targets are older versions of themselves, shunted back 30 years from the future. It turns out that a nefarious figure, dubbed The Rainmaker, is tyrannizing the future, bringing governments to their knees, and one of The Rainmaker’s decrees is to eliminate every ex-looper still living.
It’s not long before Joe finds himself face-to-face with his future self, played by Bruce Willis — at his chiseled action-hero best. Unlike his previous targets, Willis isn’t going to go so easily; he escapes his assassination and sets off on a mission to hunt down and kill The Rainmaker — the sole cause of all his grievances, including the death of his future wife. Willis narrows down his targets to one of three possible suspects — all young boys — and, it’s at the home of one of them that Gordon-Levitt arrives, anticipating that Willis will soon show up. Watched over by a tough-as-nails, protective mother — played by the always-captivating Emily Blunt — the young boy (Pierce Gagnon) is alert, observant, and he possesses seismic telekinetic powers, enough to tip anyone off that he’s the boy Willis is after. The dramatic tension between Gordon-Levitt and Blunt earn the romantic sparks that ensue while the former’s growing bond with Blunt’s son is also richly layered with close scenes of the two. With Gordon-Levitt, determined to save his charge, and Willis, bent on erasing the evils of his past, on a collision course, the final third of Looper becomes a riveting example of how shrewd storytelling can hold audience sympathies with both its lead characters, despite their being in direct opposition with each other.
Gordon-Levitt and Willis play two versions of the same character, that is to say, Gordon-Levitt does an impression of Willis. And, as impressions go, it’s an incredible one, channeling Willis’s tics and mannerisms to a tee. But it’s also performance that stands on its own — Joe is a tough, business-as-usual killer with a deference to his employers and with a cocky, assured sense of his future. All of that comes crashing to pieces when he slowly, surely falls for Blunt and vows to protect her son at all costs. Willis is commanding as always but now, showing his age and his wear-and-tear, he’s becoming our next Eastwood, especially since his on-screen persona — laconic, morally clear, and purposeful — is in line with Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Dirty Harry.
If Looper has a fault, it’s that it has too many moving parts, too many plot lines weaving together motives and counter-motives to keep track of. For plot-driven sci-fi thrillers, this is an occupational hazard and as clean as Johnson’s script is, it’s too busy — especially once Daniels and his minions go hunting for both Gordon-Levitt and Willis — to allow for a full immersion into the story’s wonderfully drawn characters. That frenetic quality also rules out any chance for Looper to achieve its potential for exploring those themes it openly invites — the meaning and purpose of life, the ethics of altering the future, and of sacrificing oneself for the good of humanity. It’s all there, touched upon, but Johnson could’ve slowed or simplified his plot for these themes to breathe and permeate our experience of his otherwise excellent storytelling.
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Pierce Gagnon, Quing Xu, Tracie Thomas, Garret Dillahunt