And for his next trick, Rian Johnson — writer/director of the high-school noir “Brick” and the whimsical con-men caper “The Brothers Bloom” — delivers “Looper,” a satisfying sci-fi thriller about time travel, telekinesis, and human weakness. It has a few superficial things in common with Johnson’s previous work, but the most substantive element the three movies share is more substantive and elemental: they are crafty, clever stories that transcend their genres.
Set in a not-too-futuristic 2044, “Looper” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a seemingly ordinary fellow who earns a living as a special kind of Mob hit man. Thirty years hence, after time travel has been invented and outlawed, crime bosses will dispose of enemies by sending them back to 2044, where guys like Joe kill them. (What better place to hide a corpse than 30 years in the past?) There is no bright future in such a career, no climbing up the corporate Mob ladder, and Joe is well aware of this. As he observes in the hard-boiled narration that gives the film its noir-ish edge, people in his line of work tend not to be forward-thinkers.
These hit men are known as Loopers. The only way a Looper can really screw up his job is if his target gets zapped back to 2044 and he fails to immediately kill that person. The last thing you want is somebody from the future running around in the present, causing rifts in timelines and such. You go to the appointed place at the appointed time; you wait for the target, already bound and gagged, to appear before you; and you execute him. You do this even if the target is your own future self.
Do you see where this is going? Trust me, you don’t. OK, maybe a little. Joe’s future self, played by Bruce Willis, is sent to him to be executed, and Old Joe escapes before Young Joe can do the job. This puts Young Joe in hot water with his boss, Abe (an evilly sardonic Jeff Daniels), and soon both Joes are on the run. Old Joe claims to have a good reason for escaping, though, beyond the obvious reason of not wanting to die. Something in the future is wrong. Having been sent back in time, albeit as a condemned man, perhaps he can fix it.
While I enjoy a ripping time-travel yarn as much as the next guy, what I enjoy even more is one like “Looper” that focuses on telling a suspenseful, human story instead of fixating on time-travel paradoxes. (There’s a moment where Old Joe pointedly tells his younger self not to worry so much about the details.) Johnson devotes sufficient creative energy to laying out the rules of this world, but he’s not interested in the “how” of time travel (which is fair, since time travel is impossible), nor does he care about conjuring puzzles to bend our brains (though there’s some of that too). For him, the subjects of time travel and telekinesis — oh yeah, telekinesis is a thing in 2044 — are merely the setting for an ingenious story about bigger things.
Joe’s addiction to a futuristic drug seems incidental at first, but then it hints at the movie’s larger messages about history repeating itself and our efforts to break the cycles we get stuck in. This is demonstrated viscerally in a chilling sequence concerning a Looper named Seth (Paul Dano) who discovers that what happens to him now immediately manifests itself in the body of his older self. We see it also in the fiercely protective mother (Emily Blunt) who is determined to guard her son (Pierce Gagnon) against anything that might hinder his future.
Bruce Willis is characteristically good in the role of a fast-moving action hero, but it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt whose performance is most remarkable. Aided by makeup to enhance the physical resemblance, JGL adopts Willis’ speech and mannerisms to an uncanny degree. We have no problem buying that these are two different versions of the same character, and that their fates are intrinsically connected.
This is the real deal, folks — intelligent, humorous, exciting entertainment that happens to be sci-fi but is by no means limited to that genre’s target audience in terms of appeal. Anyone who appreciates good fiction, science- or otherwise, will find much to enjoy in what amounts to the latest proof that Rian Johnson is one of the best up-and-coming filmmakers in America.
A- (1 hr., 58 min.; )