Writer/director Rian Johnson’s smoldering debut “Brick” was a dark, noirish tale preoccupied with mobsters, double-crossing characters and lots of violence.
He brings that same mentality to “Looper,” a futuristic sci-fi tale that’s gripping and absorbing, with twists that keep us guessing throughout. Johnson creates his own world with his own rules and revels in it. So do we.
The story starts out set in the year 2044, a time of flying motorcycles and retro 20th-century fashion, where mobsters run an operation of hired hit men called “loopers.” Their leader is Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man from 30 years in the future, where time travel exists but is illegal and only available on the black market.
So is killing, and the penalty is so severe that the mobsters in 2074 send their targets to be killed back to 2044, where the loopers are waiting to take them out. They kill them and dispose of the bodies and make lots of money doing so. (Why they are sent to this exact time period is never explained, but don’t dwell on it — your head will hurt.)
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such looper who is content with his life and job. There are clearly perks to being in the mob, with free drugs, fast cars, hot women and cool nightclubs. Joe and his buddy Seth (Paul Dano) spend their days carousing and joking around with the other loopers — it’s kind of a fraternity of well-dressed killers.
But their days are numbered. When a looper kills a target that turns out to be his self from the future, he is released from the looper organization and is free to enjoy his remaining days in wealth and stature. And the loopers hear rumors that the mob world of 2074 has been taken over by a ruthless new leader known as the Rainmaker, who is slowly ending the looper program and erasing all remnants of it.
Joe’s interest is piqued. When will his future self show up? He’s been saving up for the day he will be released and looks forward to living out his remaining free years in France.
But when Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis) does show up, things don’t go as planned. The older Joe escapes, and younger Joe must find him or face a terrible fate.
Meanwhile, older Joe has an agenda of his own, and sets out to get some revenge. The hunt ensues, leading young Joe to a farm, where he will wait for older Joe and guard a woman (Emily Blunt) and her young son, who have problems of their own. The other loopers are also hot on the trail of both Joes.
It’s a brave, sprawling, grandiose and inventive tale deftly handled by Johnson, who keeps the pace swift. The way the story starts and stops and overlaps itself is dazzling. And, amazingly, the film’s logic mostly holds up (as logical as a time-travel movie can be, anyway).
There’s lots of gunfire and old-fashioned action mixed in with bigger-picture themes (family, love, mortality). But what’s most impressive are the multi-dimensional characters. Rarely does a sci-fi actioner have this kind of enthralling complexity.
The visuals and look are striking. The only thing that becomes distracting is Levitt’s makeup. He’s almost unrecognizable in prosthetics that make him resemble Willis. It works when they are in scenes together, but you’ll have to keep yourself from studying Levitt’s face in close-ups.
It’s a small thing in an otherwise thrilling, thoroughly engrossing ride.