In the lively, imaginative Looper, director Rian Johnson takes a huge leap in stock from his previous two, somewhat precious movies (Brick and The Brothers Bloom). This is an exciting, exceptionally well-made futuristic thriller that also happens to be loaded with lived-in touches and punchy ideas, proof that Johnson has thought this material out carefully and considered all possible angles.
The ones he chooses will surprise you. The film is set in Kansas 2044, when time travel hasn’t yet been invented. It will be soon, though, and immediately deemed illegal. But the mob comes up with an ingenious use for the hoary sci-fi staple, using it to send prisoners back to a cornfield in 2044, a bag over their heads and their hands tied behind their back, where a “looper” waits with a shotgun to execute them.
The first third of Looper fills in the details of the movie’s world — the lower-class is now homeless, foraging for food in the streets — while centering on Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper who has few friends (Paul Dano plays one of them). Joe is stashing his money away for something — retirement? fleeing the country? — and is addicted to a drug, dispensed via eye drops, that has become the new crack.
Using contact lenses and subtle but noticeable prosthetics, Gordon-Levitt looks different than normal, which helps distance us from the usually warm and likable actor. Joe is a killer for hire, which makes him a not-nice guy. But he’s quiet and follows orders and doesn’t cause a fuss, until his latest assignment pops up on a Kansas field: An older version of himself (Bruce Willis), who manages to free himself and escape through the cornfields.
Having young Joe and old Joe running around in the same time period is known as an “open loop” which is a huge no-no for the crime boss (an amusing Jeff Daniels) running the outfit. In one of the film’s best scenes, the two Joes meet at a diner to discuss their predicament (when you see them together, you realize Gordon-Levitt’s makeup was used to make him look more like Willis). But there is no possible solution that can please both men, and so Looper becomes a chase movie in which the protagonist is trying to kill his elder self, while the mature Joe is trying to find a loophole to alter the past so he can change the present.
Willis, who often coasts through action movies without even pretending to seem interested, is completely invested here, doing dark, bad things that a lot of A-list actors would decline to do. Gordon-Levitt, who becomes a stronger and more substantial presence with every movie he makes, makes a worthy opponent (or is he the hero?), often thinking one step ahead of his prey, which is probably not that hard, since he is chasing himself.
Instead of opting for a giant action-filled climax, Johnson sets the final third of Looper on a remote farm where a single mother (Emily Blunt) is raising her son. The director uses practical effects whenever he can — the gore, which is plentiful, looks real — but he does neat things with computer-generated images, too, including one astonishing scene near the end involving telekinesis that is one of the most striking images in any film this year. As its title implies, Looper eventually paints itself into a corner, and Johnson’s solution is not as satisfying as you’d like it to be. But that feels like a gripe when compared to the rest of the film, which is the sort of fast-paced, engrossing genre movie that engages you emotionally and intellectually instead of just trying to dazzle you.
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt.
Writer-director: Rian Johnson.
Producers: Ram Bergman, James D. Stern.
A TriStar Pictures release. Running time: 118 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.