Time travel is a tricky storytelling device. On one side, it allows for an infinite number of twists and turns in the narrative, but it also demands that the author carefully manage every thread of the story in order to keep all of the timelines in order.
Fortunately, “Looper” director Rian Johnson proves himself an expert caretaker of his film’s time-twisting narrative, and never lets the science-fiction set-up overshadow a brilliant, action-packed adventure powered by superb performances from its cast.
In “Looper,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a hired gun in the year 2042 who, along with his fellow “loopers,” is contracted by the mob to kill people his employers send back in time from the year 2072. Disposing of bodies in the past, it seems, is the best way to ensure they’re never discovered in the future. However, when Joe discovers that one of his next targets will be his future self (Bruce Willis), things take an unexpected turn and he finds himself on the run from the mob and hunting a man who already knows everything he’s going to do.
It’s a clever concept for a film, and in the wrong hands it could go horrible awry, filled with contradicting timelines and confusing twists likely to give its audience a collective headache. But Johnson, who both wrote and directed the film, handles the premise masterfully, and does a nice job of letting the story play out naturally rather than wrestling with the implications of the time-travel elements.
Right from the start, one of the most impressive achievements in the film is Gordon-Levitt’s uncanny, spot-on performance as a younger version of Willis. While the makeup and prosthetics worn by Gordon-Levitt certainly make the leap from younger to older Joe a little easier to believe, make no mistake: it’s the younger actor’s performance that seals the deal. Gordon-Levitt manages to capture every nuance of Willis’ speaking pattern, accent, and mannerisms — even his laugh. In the end, the practical effects that make him look like Willis are only a finishing touch.
Willis, on the other hand, is his usual tough-guy self, though he does manage to bring some depth to the character that makes “Old Joe” more than just a squinting, gun-toting brute. In fact, there’s just enough emotional substance there to make you uncertain which version of Joe you’re really supposed to root for in this story.
Emily Blunt and Paul Dano also do a nice job in supporting roles, and Jeff Daniels offers up a nice take on the classic kingpin role. Child actor Pierce Gagnon also holds his own amid the star-studded cast, and plays well against Gordon-Levitt and Blunt during their scenes together. A brief appearance by Garret Dillahunt — who’s a welcome addition to any cast — only adds to an already impressive roster.
One role which never really finds its footing, however, is Piper Perabo’s prostitute with a heart of gold, Suzie. As an audience, you’re led to believe there’s some emotional connection between Suzie and Joe that never quite solidifies in the film, and it ends up feeling like her only reason for being in the movie at all is the T&A factor of her brief topless scene.
Still, from start to finish, “Looper” is a brilliant action-movie experience that stands out in a crowded genre on the virtue of its stars’ performances and both the expert eye and signature flair of its writer and director. Anyone who’s seen Johnson’s breakout high-school noir “Brick” will likely pick up the filmmaker’s unique imprint all over “Looper,” from Joe’s retro-’50s style (all slim ties and slick hair) to the little touches he adds to characters’ slang and the way they interact with each other. In the end, it’s proof-positive that Johnson ranks among the best genre-blenders in Hollywood today.
With an all-star cast performing at the top of their games, a smart premise, and a talented filmmaker who makes everything good about the film come together in wonderful ways, “Looper” is more than just the typical late-season Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a special film that reminds its audience of the enormous potential of the science-fiction genre, and the great stories it can give us in the right hands.