Smartly conceived and superbly realized, Looper is a high-concept action-thriller that doesn’t bury its viewers under superfluous detail, spin its wheels in a confusing plot, or wallow in its own cleverness. Writer-director Rian Johnson (the exceptional Brick and the not-so-much The Brothers Bloom) borrows tropes from the likes of The Terminator and 12 Monkeys, but what he delivers stands firmly on its own.
It also rounds out a box office hat trick for actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who caps off a successful summer that included the highly anticipated The Dark Knight Rises and the slight but entertaining B-grade thriller Premium Rush.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a laconic inhabit of Kansas City circa 2044 who works as a peculiar form of assassin, the “looper” of the title. In the 2070s, time travel has been (or rather, will be) invented, and then almost immediately outlawed. This won’t prevent it from being used by the vast crime cartels that control the country, who use the technology to send victims into the past where loopers promptly execute them and the dispose of the technically non-existent corpses.
It’s a living that allows Joe to stockpile bricks of silver, until the day comes when he can retire; unfortunately, for loopers retirement involves their final hit being in the form of their future selves, sent back by a telekinetic tyrant known as “the Rainmaker” as a way of tying up loose ends. When Joe’s future self (played by Bruce Willis) inevitably arrives for termination, the latter manages to escape.
That’s when Looper kicks into high gear, with the younger Joe surprisingly willing to off his older self in order to maintain the seedy life that he lives, and Johnson delves deep into the notion of a person’s past and future selves meeting and taking an instant dislike to one another — a rather unique form of identity crisis. Willis and Gordon-Levitt play exceptionally well off one another, with the younger actor mimicking Willis’ cadences and mannerism under facial prosthetics that give him an eerie resemblance.
Johnson delves into the hoary time travel cause-and-effect tropes, as Willis’ character has an agenda of his own that adds to the conflict with his younger self when the latter takes refuge with single mom Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon, giving an eerily grown-up performance for a seven-year-old). The details won’t be revealed here, suffice to say it’s a subplot that adds a moral quandary to story’s questions on identity and fate, and Johnson keeps the whole shebang mind-bending and twisty in a way that’s clearly defined and easily digested.
He also delivers a vision of the future that is grungy and minimalist, defined by a familiar squalor that is punctuated by unusual touches such as hovercycles and next-gen PDAs, mixed with film noir touches and judicious use of special effects. It’s the kind of movie that sticks in the back of your head for a few days, something far and few between these days.