Review: 'Looper' starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis
Three films into his young career and Rian Johnson has established himself as a uniquely gifted filmmaker capable of pushing genre boundaries with apparent ease. Breaking out with his debut feature, the inventive neo-noir Brick, he followed that up with The Brothers Bloom, a stylish heist film wrapped in a fantasy wrapped in a fable. Looper is perhaps his greatest challenge yet, as creating smart, inventive science fiction is a nut that's notoriously hard to crack.
Johnson does more than just succeed, as Looper is easily the best the genre has seen in years. No small feat considering science fiction has been in the midst of a creative renaissance, but Looper is a special film that combines many familiar elements, presenting them from a fresh and exciting angle. Re-teaming with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the star of his debut feature(he also made a cameo in The Brothers Bloom), Johnson sets the film in 2044 Kansas City, a few decades before time travel is invented and controlled by underground criminal elements. Covered in heavy prosthetics that dramatically transform his features, Levitt stars as Joe, a hitman whose job is to dispose of any targets the mob sends back from the future. The jobs are neat and clean, just like Joe's life. He shows up at the designated spot, and when the target arrives all covered and tied up, he finishes them and moves on, collecting his silver bars as payment.
If you get gold bars, well then that could be a problem. It means the mob is "closing your loop", and your next victim is likely to be your future self. It's the only way to keep too many people from knowing too much. If all goes well, a looper won't know he's killed his older self until the job's done. From that point a looper has about thirty years to experience the world before his ticket gets punched. In Joe's case, he just wants to learn some French and travel the world. After watching a fellow looper(Paul Dano) let his future self escape, he sees the horrific price paid for such a mistake. So when his own future self(Bruce Willis) gets the jump on him and runs off, Joe knows he doesn't have long before he meets a similarly gruesome fate.
It takes awhile before Willis gets into the action, but the wait is more than worth it as the pace ramps up from there and never really lets up. Johnson mixes their early encounters with a mix of humor and Blade Runner-style action, and it's in these moments where Johnson really comes into his own a number of levels. Deftly avoiding the clunky time travel traps that have befallen so many other filmmakers, Johnson never delves too deep into the mechanics of the whole thing. In fact, he chooses to make light of it as the Older Joe growls ""If we talk about time-travel we're gonna end up sitting here drawing diagrams with straws". Choosing to keep a tight focus and never straying into wonky physics debates is remarkably freeing, allowing us to simply concentrate on the characters.
To go much further into the plot would be to spoil everything Johnson intricately constructs, but suffice it to say there is a lot at play. Trailers and TV spots don't do it justice, and certainly don't clue you in to even half of what is truly going on. Elements taken from some unexpected sources far outside the sci-fi realm make for a completely unpredictable experience. As with both of Johnson's previous films, he places an interesting moral conundrum at the heart of the story, and the bulk of the film is seeing the tough decisions Older Joe and young Joe must make to survive. Some of those are pretty heinous, some self-sacrificing, but all could have a dramatic effect on the future.
Those expecting Looper to be an all-out action showcase may be a little disappointed. While it's never boring, the momentum shifts into a lower gear when we meet Sara(Emily Blunt), a single mother living on a farm with her son. They both play an integral role that can't really be divulged here, as they prove to be the facilitators of the film's greatest twists and turns. Our allegiance to certain characters is continually put to the test as the ordeal unfolds, and for awhile it's fun to see how transpiring events effect our perceptions of both Joes. Eventually it does start to get a little clunky with so many plots being juggled, and Johnson is forced to do some serious scrambling to get all his pieces into place for the big finale.
When it all boils right down to it, this is a razor sharp character study with bursts of perfectly staged violence. Johnson is fairly inexperienced at action choreography, but he shows a real knack for it with a few thrilling sequences reminiscent of Christopher Nolan. Of course the dueling performances by Levitt and Willis are the big draw, and it's amazing to see how much emotion Levitt can portray underneath all that heavy make-up. He even manages to get some of Willis' mannerisms down pat, and the gruff voice isn't too bad, either. He's good enough to make us like a character who is essentially a bad guy, and at different times we're compelled to root for him and hope he fails. Willis is in pure tough guy mode, shutting down any of his usual old man charm to play a man racked with guilt and the burden of his mission.
Looper could have been a mess in the hands of another director, but Johnson knows his material and understands these characters down to the very bone. Heady and exciting, Looper is a bold step forward for Rian Johnson, and easily one of the must-see movie experiences of the year.