Time travel with a thrilling twist
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, September 28, 2012
On paper, the science-fiction/action-adventure “Looper” possesses all of the elements that make the seasoned reviewer recoil, if not in horror, then at least sheer boredom: time travel, hit men, grisly violence, kids in jeopardy. Enough already, right?
But even these tired tropes can feel vibrant and new in the hands of an accomplished filmmaker. Rian Johnson, “Looper’s” writer-director, revisits territory well tilled by such hands as Philip K. Dick and comes up with a movie that’s far more ambitious than a mere genre exercise. As both an elaboration of the sci-fi form and an engaging, philosophically provocative drama, “Looper” turns out to be as substantive as it is stylish.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also starred in Johnson’s debut film “Brick,” plays Joe, a laconic young man living in Kansas City in 2042, where as the film opens he recites a French lesson in a wheat field while consulting his pocket watch. Another man suddenly appears and -- blam! -- Joe blows him away.
He explains in a voice-over that his victim has come from the 2070s, when the mob uses time-traveling assassins like Joe -- called loopers -- to dispose of bodies that technically don’t exist.
It’s a living, and a pretty good one -- Joe stashes bricks of silver under the floorboards of his apartment -- until the mob boss of the future, a ruthless racketeer called the Rainmaker -- decides to “close the loop” and sends the older version of the hit man back to be killed. That’s precisely what happens to Joe, who when he confronts his older self -- played in the film by Bruce Willis -- doesn’t quite carry out the orders as planned.
But that’s not for lack of trying. Among the many, and mostly fascinating, convolutions of “Looper” is how willing young Joe is to off old Joe, who has come back to the past with his own agenda. An intricate chase ensues, the two men grappling with issues of identity, fate and contradictory motivations until confronting each other in an exceptionally taut, well-staged scene in a rural diner.
Much has been made of how Gordon-Levitt, with the help of a prosthetic nose and makeup, has become a younger version of Willis. The resemblance is indeed uncanny, but owes as much to the younger actor’s mastery of Willis’s speech cadences and body language as anything else. Together they create the seamless illusion of one man who has led multiple lives, an I’m-still-me-but-not-that-me reality that anyone older than 20 surely can relate to.
Johnson similarly has created an entirely believable futuristic America, where the middle class has effectively disappeared, creating a seedy, viciously bifurcated society of have-nots and have-even-lesses. “Looper” doesn’t traffic in shiny, gizmo-laden visions of Generation Next; rather, the loopers use big, ungainly blunderbusses to shoot their victims. The city’s “vagrants” live in tent cities that look dismally contemporary, and Joe favors the leather jackets and skinny ties of his hard-boiled cousins from 20th-century pulp fiction.
“Do something new. Wear something glowing around your neck,” growls Abe, Joe’s Fagin-like boss played to a grumpy tee by Jeff Daniels. “Looper” benefits from a passel of terrific supporting performances, not just from Daniels (here nicely leveraging the grouchy persona he’s been honing throughout the first season of “The Newsroom”), but from Emily Blunt as a sunburned farmer and housekeeper named Sara, and Pierce Gagnon, who as her young son Cid delivers the film’s most astonishingly assured and unsettling performance. (Rarely has the simple phrase “Hand me that Phillips” landed with such commanding authority.)
The disquieting lengths Johnson is willing to go to with kids in “Looper” proves his mettle as a filmmaker who won’t compromise hard truths about moral agency for the sake of the audiences’ comfort.
The ethics of saving the future by changing the past might be a time-worn theoretical question. But “Looper” brings it to life with startling inventiveness and visual pizazz, whether in a grimly imaginative scene of the effects of a character’s torture showing up on his future older body, or some dazzlingly clever staging during a climactic sequence at Sara’s farmhouse.
A glance at the characters’ names indicates a trend at work in “Looper,” which may begin as a “Terminator”-like piece of time travel escapism, but ultimately gathers Old Testament-worthy force and fury. It’s not just gravitas that makes “Looper” so enjoyable, but Johnson’s well-timed injections of taste and wit, like music cues from Warren Zevon and Richard and Linda Thompson, or when young Joe tells another character that he’s planning on one day moving to France. “I’m from the future,” the older man says. “You should go to China.”
Thanks to the assured hold Johnson exerts over this ingeniously structured game of cat-and-cat, we’ll go anyplace he has in mind.
Contains strong violence, profanity, some sexuality/nudity and drug content.