From books to movies to video games, time travel’s been presented in so many forms that it’s difficult to find a truly unique story about one of the most popular aspects of science fiction anymore. But here in 2012, along comes Rian Johnson’s “Looper”, a smart, funny and action-packed film that ranks as one of the most entertaining and expertly done pieces of cinema you’ll see this year. With sterling work from a diverse cast of actors and an always-compelling narrative, “Looper” may be the best depiction of the future I’ve seen since 2002’s “Minority Report”.
The central premise of “Looper” is heady enough. It’s 2044, and, in the words of Joe, (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) “time travel hasn’t been invented yet – but it will be.” Joe is a looper, an assassin hired to shoot and kill bodies sent from 30 years in the future. This is a rather simple task – Joe goes to an assigned spot at an assigned time, waits for a person with a cloth over his head to appear out of thin air and shoots him with a “blunderbuss”, a gun that’s an instant killer from close range. He then collects a pack of silver that’s attached to the person’s back and deposits it for a big payday. But every now and then, a looper will shoot someone with gold instead of silver – his future self, sent back to be assassinated by his young self. This practice, known as “closing the loop”, guarantees the looper 30 years of retirement with a heap of gold. Not a terrible deal, though it’s creepy to know that you’re on a fixed timeline of mortality.
But of course, things don’t exactly go as planned for our hero. Because one day, Joe finds a figure without a hood who’s a little behind schedule – his future self (Bruce Willis). And Old Joe escapes, knocking out Young Joe and going on the run. The old man’s determined to find a terrifying, mysterious figure from the future known as The Rainmaker, who’s taken control of crime in 2074. Meanwhile, the enforcers around the city, led by Abe (Jeff Daniels), a boss sent back from the future to lead the hired guns, are out to get both Joes before something goes wrong…
A good deal of the fun of “Looper” is presented in its many quirks and surprises, so I’ll ease up on the rest of the plot details. The world that Johnson has created, set in a future city in Kansas and the corn fields outside the city, is a gritty, ugly one where the loopers and “gat men” rule the roost, though not without their limitations. It’s a future world that takes some liberties with what’s likely to happen over the next 30 years, but doesn’t completely veer off the rails. It’s fun to imagine just what Johnson could do with the universe he’s created in less than two hours.
And it’s even more fun to imagine considering the talent involved. Gordon-Levitt is tremendous, never missing a beat as the chased and conflicted Young Joe – as if you expected any different. Emily Blunt is powerfully affecting in a key supporting role, as is her young son played by child actor Pierce Gagnon, a terrific find. Daniels gets to flex his comedic muscles as the slimy crime boss, while Paul Dano and Noah Segan anchor Abe’s group of assassins. But it’s Willis who may shine brightest in the film. He owns a scene with Gordon-Levitt in a diner, coolly and comedically sparring with his younger self. He tears through a group of assassins more brutally and viscerally than any moment of his role in the hyper-violent The Expendables 2. And he’s the emotional heart of the picture, dealing with some tragic actions in his life. This is A-grade work all across the board, and Willis gets to flex his acting muscles just as much as anyone.
Some people may quibble with the ending of “Looper” as inconsistent with the rest of the film, a problem I didn’t have but could at least appreciate others having. But overall, there’s not much to quibble about here. It’s easy to soak into the beauty of Johnson’s world and its beautifully stylistic moments. “Looper” isn’t just a total blast, entertainment-wise – it’s fun, smart and emotionally powerful. Johnson, who both wrote and directed the film, has delivered one of the year’s best works here. I can’t wait to see it again.