In 2005, Rian Johnson burst onto the independent film scene with Brick; a movie that took all the staples of a classic film noir and put them into a high school drama setting. It worked marvelously, thanks to his assured direction, consistent tone and a gripping lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The film seemed confident that it was every bit as cool as the classics of the genre. Johnson showed great promise as a director worth watching. He hit a sophomore slump with the convoluted The Brother’s Bloom, which still had a great sense of fun but was undone by too many plot twists and jarring tonal shifts. That brings us to Looper, Johnson’s third feature, which finds him in sci-fi territory. It’s a fun, gritty futuristic thriller with a surprising emotional core. It’s his strongest film to date, and one of my favorite films of the year.
In the future, time travel has been invented. It was quickly outlawed, but mob bosses still use it in secret to get rid of a person without leaving any trace. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a looper; a specialized assassin who awaits the arrival of mob targets from the future. They appear out of thin air with a bag on their head. Then Joe promptly shoots them in the chest with his blunderbuss and disposes of the anonymous bodies. When a looper’s employment is no longer needed, the mob “closes the loop” by sending the assassin their future self as the target. Once a looper exterminates their future self, they take their final payment and enjoy the next 30 years of their life in peace. We learn early on that a new mob boss has taken over in the future, and he’s cleaning up shop by closing loops. When Joe’s future self (Willis) shows up without a bag over his head, Joe hesitates in a moment of doubt and lets his target get away. The mob is incredibly displeased with this. What ensues is a race against the clock to close the loop before the mob exterminates him for failing to finish his contact.
That’s where the plot of Looper begins, but so much more happens in the film’s briskly paced 118-minute runtime. Johnson doesn’t settle for just having a neat sci-fi premise. He realizes a concept isn’t enough, and he uses it to tell a compelling story. He’s blessed with a wealth of talent to carry out his plot. Gordon-Levitt continues to demonstrate that he is one of the best young actors working today. The make-up effects always looked strange to me, but Gordon-Levitt himself does an excellent job of channeling Bruce Willis’s acting style and physicality. I never thought he could pull off a tough guy role so well, even if he is still a kid next to the real thing. Seeing Bruce Willis in an action role again without an excess of geriatric humor is a treat. He brings the tough attitude with him that made him a star. Emily Blunt is also fantastic as a shotgun toting farm girl with a harsh attitude. Each of these characters is given a solid emotional center, and each has motives that we, as the viewer, can get behind.
I like the run-down futuristic style in my sci-fi movies. Like Blade Runner and the more recent Children of Men, the future depicted in Looper has new technology, but the city looks worn out and impoverished as ever. Paul Dano’s character buys a fancy new hover bike (they have a name in the film that eludes me now), and he must scare off vagrants that walk toward it when he parks it. I wish the visuals department didn’t result to the lens flares that J.J. Abrams leans on to give his movies a futuristic sheen, but here they are used in moderation and I still prefer them to Spielberg’s grainy, high contrast depictions of the future. Looper gradually dips its feet into the supernatural in much the same way that Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige did. Time travel is already supernatural, but there’s more to it. I was initially turned off by the presence of this supernatural element, but it is used in some really cool ways and it is never too convenient for the story.
If I had to find something to complain about, it would be that there wasn’t enough of the things I loved about the movie. When Gordon-Levitt and Willis share a scene together in a diner, going over how their actions effect one another, it is hilarious and compelling. Watching Willis chew out his younger self for being such an idiot is awfully funny, and in a way emotionally compelling. But we never get another interaction like this throughout the rest of the film. I would have also liked to see more of Jeff Daniels. He plays a mob boss from the future who has come back in time to manage the looper side of the business. It is such an unlikely role for Daniels, but he’s terrific. He alternates between funny and menacing effortlessly, and his part in the film is way too small. Given how fun and interesting the movie was, I really would not mind if Looper added another half hour to its runtime to give us more of these great character interactions.
Looper has its share of twists and turns. Johnson knows his audience isn’t stupid, and as soon as it becomes easy to put the pieces together, new information is revealed. But the biggest surprise in this film doesn’t come from a big sci-fi twist. The real revelation is that the film has a heart at the center of all its thrilling set pieces and hardened characters. That heart comes into play in a big way during the film’s climax in a perfect moment of clarity. It resonates on multiple levels. I can’t think of a better way to end it. It’s the best sci-fi thriller I’ve seen since Minority Report. Looper is smart, slick, and outrageously entertaining from beginning to end.
Looper will be released nationwide on September 28th.
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