|SONY PICTURES/ALAN MARKFIELD|
Bruce Willis, left, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are shown in a scene from "Looper."
"Looper" boasts an ingenius premise, a hook most other movies would introduce and simply coast on until the end. But writer-director Rian Johnson never stops working, using the science-fiction setup and trappings to delve into the characters and give us a story with some real meat.
"Looper" is the story of Joe. Actually, it's the story of two Joes—who really are the same Joe. One, in 2044, is a young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a junkie who works for a ruthless mob boss known as the Rainmaker—who's running things three decades from now. "Time travel hasn't been invented yet," Joe explains in voice-over, "but in 30 years, it will have been." Joe is a "looper," an executioner who eliminates whoever the future mob sends back in time, no questions asked. The mob literally makes its enemies disappear and rewards Joe handsomely. Each looper does this knowing his future self eventually will be delivered to him. He's expected to pull the trigger as he always does, take the hefty payout that comes along with it and live out his remaining days however he sees fit—until it's time for him to go back and close his loop.
Everybody got that? Good.
The other Joe (Bruce Willis) is the same man, 30 years older, sent back for his inevitable unpleasant meeting with his younger self. But when he appears, next to a cornfield in the middle of nowhere, there's no hood over his face, his hands aren't bound behind his back—something isn't right. Young Joe looks into his eyes, recognizes himself, hesitates. Future Joe overpowers him and escapes.
There are no heroes here. Future Joe wants to find the Rainmaker as a child and kill him, though he doesn't know which little boy is the one who will grow up to become the dreaded mobster. He has narrowed his list of suspects to three, and he's not here to investigate further. Young Joe just wants to find the older man and kill him, save his own skin and get his money. Both commit horrible acts through the course of the movie, yet Johnson never loses sight of their humanity. There are no easy answers when it comes to the question of who is right and who is wrong.
Johnson also deals with time travel in a way that seems to make sense—or at least as much sense as a movie about time travel can make. (Future Joe's memories change based on young Joe's actions; i.e., as soon as young Joe does something, it becomes a memory for future Joe, potentially changing key moments of his life—a problem for a man desperately clinging to memories of his murdered wife.)
Aided by prosthetics and makeup, Gordon Levitt, who Johnson also directed in his debut feature, "Brick" (2005), bears more than a passing resemblance to Willis. He also subtly mimics the older actor's speech patterns and mannerisms—it's not readily apparent until the two Joes meet at a diner to discuss their unusual predicament. Both actors give effectively understated performances.
The tone shifts dractically in the movie's second half, when the setting moves to a farm, the home of Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who may or may not be the boy who becomes the Rainmaker. The character moments here are so involving you almost forget you're watching a science fiction film. The action returns, of course, and the contrast makes it all the more effective.
"Looper" is not a "prestige" picture (whatever that means). It is, however, as well made and entertaining as anything released so far this year—a sci-fi/action movie with a functioning brain, with actors and a filmmaker unafraid to use theirs.
Greg's Grade: A
(Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content. 118 minutes.)