By far the funniest moment of Rian Johnson’s nifty sci-fi thriller arrives when a frustrated Bruce Willis sits at a diner with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, his 30-years-younger self. The latter tries to start picking apart paradoxes and plot-holes, while Willis just sneers that they don’t have time to get into the nuts and bolts of time travel. He says they’ll be there all day, and he’ll have to diagram everything out with straws.
It’s a clever way of telling the audience not to think too hard about what we’re watching and just go along for the ride. Looper is a pretty good ride.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a sullen, miserable drug-addicted hitman working for the mob in the not-too-distant future of 2044. Turns out time travel was invented but quickly became illegal, so only gangsters use it. They beam back targets from three decades since, and hired assassins called “loopers” blow these guys away and quietly dispose of the bodies. See, there’s no forensic evidence when you’re sending your victim to be murdered 30 years ago.
Joe is stockpiling bars of silver in his basement, and learning French for a move abroad whenever he finally gets out of this nasty business. “I’m from the future, you should go to China,” mutters his hilariously bored boss, deftly played by Jeff Daniels. It’s a soulless, ugly job, but Joe doesn’t seem to mind much. Until the day he’s supposed to kill ... himself.
Willis is able to outfox the kid because he knows all his moves. They’re his own, after all. He’s old, weary and beat down after too many decades of being a remorseless criminal. The best parts of Looper bring the young and old Joes face-to-face, with the persnickety Willis saying, “I am going to save your worthless life.”
There’s more. Much more, in fact. Johnson is the kind of filmmaker who will never be faulted for a lack of ambition. He burst onto the scene with 2005’s crafty high school noir, Brick, and followed it up with the more expansive and significantly less-charming The Brothers Bloom. Johnson is a very clever man, if sometimes a bit too clever for his own good.
Looper roars out of the gate with a vision of the future that’s just slightly off from our own reality. Skipping the standard-issue Blade Runner dystopia set design, Johnson takes great pains to keep the picture grounded in recognizable reality, setting most of the picture in workaday diners and old farmhouses. A few fashions and word choices are slightly off-kilter, but, for the most part, his 2044 could be right now.
The main event here is Gordon-Levitt’s young Willis impression. Despite the distracting prosthetic nose, it’s an uncanny collection of squints, slow-burns and long exhales. (He basically acts like my college pals and I did every time we re-watched The Last Boy Scout after coming home drunk.) Johnson has never worked with a movie star like Willis before, and the most satisfying portions of the picture genuflect at the altar of Willis-ness. In his wheelhouse as a sullen, heartbroken badass, Willis’ costumes are even a throwback to his Pulp Fiction getup, and sometimes I think we forget how well he wears a T-shirt soaked in blood. Ah, if he had only smoked cigarettes. Willis is easily the best movie smoker since the 1940s.
I’m afraid to give away too many of Looper’s twists and turns, but it is safe to say that after a very busy first hour, the movie settles down into something more thoughtful and less visceral, with Gordon-Levitt kicking drugs while holed up at a farm owned by a shotgun-toting, extremely appealing Emily Blunt. There is much ado about a future crimelord, with Willis going full Terminator in an attempt to alter the timeline and save his wife’s life. If this means killing little kids, then so be it—he knows how they’re going to grow up. Credit Willis and Johnson for pushing the picture into such uncomfortable territory, complete with a shocker of a shot that momentarily drops the John McClane references and reaches back to Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Looper is a neat little movie that leaves you with the nagging feeling it could have been so much more. Gordon-Levitt and Willis are only onscreen together for a handful of moments, which is too bad because those scenes provide an emotional hook for the entire picture. There’s a young man meeting his older self, saying, “I’m not going to grow up to be you.” The old man looks back, disgusted at what he used to be. Johnson gets a bit too fussy with the crafty plot developments to follow that emotional throughline as far as it needed to go.
But I did admire a sequence in which Johnson puts all the existential dilemmas on hold and just gives Willis a couple of machine guns in a complex full of disposable henchmen. It’s Johnson’s most endearing fanboy flourish, as if the filmmaker is saying: “Look, I’ve got Bruce Willis in my movie. We need at least one scene in which he just kills the shit out of everybody.”