Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★1/2
In the year 2074, time travel is real. It’s also illegal. This means organized crime is making the most of it.
Looper, a just about brilliant sci-fi crime-drama-thriller set in 2044 and 2074 makes weary retreads such as last summer’s Total Recall remake look sick and tired.
In 2044, the U.S. heartland is a bleak place of haves and have-nots. Amidst the wandering, impoverished have-nots, Joe is a very comfortable have. Working as a mob hit man, he’s earning a fortune in pure silver.
Joe’s work is brutally simple. When the mob of the future wants someone dead, they put the victim in a time machine and send him to a prearranged location with a bag over his head, hands tied behind his back.
When the hit arrives from the future, Joe, or another member of the mob’s squadron of killers, aka loopers, shoots him the instant he appears. Loopers use a gun designed specifically for their killing assignments. The blunderbuss can fire only a few shots from close range.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the cocky Joe. A one-time poor kid lifted from the streets of Kansas City by Abe, the mob-appointed lord of loopers. Joe favors a retro 20th-century look. He drives a classic car and has dreams of hoarding enough silver to leave killing behind and move to France.
Looper is only the third feature film from 39-year-old writer-director Rian Johnson. It follows 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, and 2005’s Sundance Film Festival hit, Brick. Looper, which earned $20.8 million in its opening weekend, is his commercial breakthrough and deservedly so.
Johnson orchestrates Looper with a slow, quiet burn. There’s distance, subtly in his scenes. But at the same time that he’s demonstrating indie-style craftsmanship, he’s got populist thrills waiting in the wings.
Despite Looper’s sci-fi elements, it’s also a weighty drama tangling with moral dilemmas. As unlikely as it is that Joe would be a principled human being, he may hide a few surprises in his cool, professional-killer style.
Jeff Daniels’ Abe plays it smart, running the mob’s busy looper operation on a strictly professional basis. Loopers aren’t supposed to be particularly smart. And they do make fatal mistakes. Joe’s friend, Seth, played by the effectively panicked Paul Dano, makes a fatal error. He lets his loop run.
Emily Blunt, a wonderful British actress who appears in good films such as The Devil Wears Prada and The Young Victoria but also makes bad choices such as The Wolfman and the Jack Black-starring Gulliver’s Travels, finds a character worthy of her talent in Looper. Even her accent stays convincing, at least most of the time. Blunt’s Sara, a single mom living in rural isolation, becomes irrevocably intertwined with Joe.
Looper’s time-travel scenario makes it possible for Joe to exist as both his young self and decades-older self. Bruce Willis applies his familiar stoicism to Old Joe, a man who pursues the future he’s lost by whatever means necessary. It’s a one-note performance, but that’s just what the director ordered.
Johnson sets Looper’s events in motion with calculated detachment. That makes the film’s outcome all the more striking. He’s a rare director who can create entertainment with depth.