For about an hour, Looper really cooks. Its second half is more of a medium boil, and less fun. But watching it, I realized how few commercial entertainments hold up straight through to the end point.
Even a clever and idiosyncratic filmmaker such as Rian Johnson, the writer-director of Looper, must feel the pressure (especially with Bruce Willis and a lot of bullets involved) to deliver the body-count payoffs in a way that satisfies genre expectations.
Still, and in ways that make the results worth seeing: That first hour cooks. And the second hour brings Emily Blunt into the story, which is a fine thing for any second half to offer.
Far beyond the retro stylizations of his earlier films—the Dashiell Hammett-soaked Brick (2006) and the madcap-heiress picaresque The Brothers Bloom (2009)—Johnson’s third feature plays make-believe for keeps. This is a time-travel movie. For a large swath of the movie-going population, especially the fantasists and futurists among us, time travel is as strong a hook as “boy meets girl” or “the show must go on” or “whoever opposes Liam Neeson must pay.”
Set in Kansas in 2044, the urbanscape in Looper resembles a grungy, brutal Oz surrounded by soothingly retro farm country. In this future, time travel hasn’t yet been discovered, but 30 years later, by the 2070s, it has, and it’s in the illegal hands of the gangster underworld. To snuff out an adversary, poof: Send him back to 2044 with a bag on his head, and there, standing at the ready with a nasty rifle called the Blunderbuss, is the “looper,” the gun for hire.
The star of Brick six years ago, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the looper Joe. The work has begun to wear him down. He’s a drug addict. He knows that eventually he’ll be assigned to “close his loop,” and kill off the 30-years-later version of himself. The day arrives. Bruce Willis plays the older Joe, who arrives ready for extermination without his hood. Younger Joe flinches; older Joe escapes. The chase is on, and younger Joe has things he must learn about his fate, and the fate (inevitable? malleable?) of his world.
Johnson sets all this up extremely well. The glimpses of the technology we’re afforded in Looper, notably the hovercrafts, are fleeting and evocative. The picture is a modest triumph of midsize budgeting and sparing effects that don’t compete with the human beings. The violence, for a while, comes in fast, brutal bursts, neither sadistic nor jocular in tone.
Gordon-Levitt, wearing subtle and artful makeup that nudges his face closer to that of a young Willis, is an actor who truly interacts with his fellow performers. Here they range from Jeff Daniels (an amusingly off-handed gangland leader) to Blunt, atypically cast but wholly convincing as a weathered but great-looking farm widow, raising a preteen boy whose place in the story remains either a mystery or a bit of a muddle, depending on how much you like that second half.
There’s a lot going on here, including scenes of Older Joe and his wife (Summer Qing) and footage shot in Shanghai. (Most of Looper was filmed in New Orleans.) Johnson’s story brings in telekinesis, elements of Shane and, in the less inspired action sequences, gamer-style slaughter that’s not nearly as sharp or exciting as the best Johnson creates in the earlier sequences. Through it all, though, Looper returns to a tantalizing prospect. What if two halves of one person, a younger version and an older version, were able to converse over a cup of coffee? What would you tell your junior self?
If the first half of Looper could talk to the second half, it would probably say: Don’t overcomplicate. Even so, the actors are excellent. And Johnson’s ambitions remain bracingly high.
Looper (R) ★★★☆☆