For a mainstream Hollywood movie, “Looper” is something rare: a hyper-intelligent, visually inventive, wittily written science-fiction thriller that pays tribute to numerous popular films, yet still manages to look and feel like a true original. Director Rian Johnson has created a wild new stew out of some familiar and beloved ingredients.
“Looper” is set in 2074, when time-travel exists but is illegal, and thus only used by criminals syndicates, who employ time-traveling assassins called loopers to kill people and dispose of their bodies. These loopers travel back to the year 2044 to do their dirty work; the film’s protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), carries out all his hits in a rural midwestern cornfield. As depicted in “Looper,” the future is a time of deprivation and overcrowding, but the loopers are paid handsomely, and live in relative luxury. However, there is a catch: At some point, the criminal syndicate will decide it no longer wants or needs the looper’s services, and will order the looper to kill his future self, a ritual known as “closing the loop.” The film opens as more and more loops are being closed, and when one of Joe’s looper friends, Seth (Paul Dano), refuses to kill himself and flees, trouble ensues. Joe turns Seth friend over to the criminal syndicate, but finds himself in a similar predicament when his future self (Bruce Willis) fights him off, knocks him out and escapes before Joe can kill him.
This premise is more than enough to sustain a feature film, but Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, and the second half of “Looper” takes viewers into new and unexpected territory. The older version of Joe SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! vows to kill the child version of a dangerous criminal overlord known as the Rainmaker, in hopes of preventing the Rainmaker’s future misdeeds. Joe heads to the farm where his older self might be headed, with the goal of completing his assignment. At the farm, he finds a single mother (Emily Blunt) and her young son.
“Looper’s” second half neatly subverts the basic story of “The Terminator” films, in which a futuristic assassin is sent to the past to kill the child who grows up to be the good and noble revolutionary leader John Connor. Unlike John Connor, the Rainmaker is a force for evil, and it’s easy to feel ambivalent about the older Joe’s quest: Nobody wants to see a child die, but knowing a child’s destiny might make you feel a little differently. And the child version of the Rainmaker already has some creepy qualities: Though not as unambiguously evil as, say, Damien from “The Omen, or that little girl from “The Bad Seed,” he’s capable of wreaking great havoc and carrying out devious schemes.
In any case, the introduction of the child-in-peril plot element dramatically changes the film, from a much simpler cat-and-mouse chase movie to a morality tale that develops suspense and character like an old-fashioned western. I wasn’t always sure that I liked the second half of the film as much as the first (or whether I totally accepted the Rainmaker as a character), but it kept me on the edge of my seat, and built to a surprisingly emotional conclusion.
I don’t always have a huge amount of patience for puzzle films (such as “Inception”), but I never got tired of contemplating the paradoxes and mysteries of “Looper.” Of course, the craft and skill with which the film is made makes it easier to do so. “Looper” has the vibe of a film noir combined with “The Road Warrior,” and a hard-bitten anti-hero who does all sorts of things that make him hard to root for, like kill people and betray his friend, yet still manages to be likable and sympathetic, perhaps because he’s played by the likable and sympathetic Gordon-Levitt. Speaking of Gordon-Levitt, he is having quite a year, with standout roles in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the underrated bike messenger thriller “Premium Rush” and the forthcoming Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln.”
“Looper’s” supporting cast, particularly Willis, Jeff Daniels and Emily Blunt, are also quite good. I especially enjoyed watching Willis run around killing everyone in sight, a not-so-subtle homage to his work in the “Die Hard” movies.
Gordon-Levitt starred in Johnson’s impressive 2005 debut “Brick,” a film noir set in a high school. Like “Looper,” “Brick” was set in a stylized world that was at once familiar and different, and featured very distinctive dialogue and lingo; “Brick’s” teenage characters sounded like they were beamed in from a Dashiell Hammett novel. “Brick” was a good movie, but “Looper” is a much grander and greater achievement, announcing Johnson as a remarkable talent with a unique voice and vision. “Looper” is dark and complicated and even a little nerve-wracking, but it’s also the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year.
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