To say too much about Looper would be to spoil much of its initial glow. Like time travel, or magic tricks, there’s nothing good that comes from showing the entire thing before you watch it play out. So many of the things I want to tell you, things I know would sell you on this movie, I can’t bring myself to actually articulate. I hope you experience them fresh, I hope the surprises work, and I hope you love them as much as I did.
But that leads to a more complex problem, in that the things that Looper are being sold on are at best a misdirection and at worse outright misleading. Yes, the plot concerns Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a mob hitman who gets his victims sent to him from a future where time travel exists and is controlled by the criminals. He’s part of a group called Loopers, who get paid lots of money with the understanding that some day, they might have to shoot their future selves when their contract is up. Which is all well and good until one day the other Joe, (Old Joe in the credits, played by Bruce Willis) shows up and isn’t so easily killed, running away and causing a time travel problem that Joe has to fix before the mob kills both of them for their trouble.
But in many ways this is just the catalyst, and much of the rest of the movie unfolds around this premise. The first third unfolds the intricate world of 2044, where Joe lives, a place where poverty is everywhere and money seems to be a strange mix of precious metals and Chinese currency, where smart phones are still recognizably smart phones, and where beat up old cars from today (though equipped with an array of makeshift solar panels) drive alongside sleek hoverbikes in massive cities that are neither gleaming or ramshackle. It’s one of the most diverse, restrained, beautiful looks at the near future since Minority Report, presenting a reality that feels just new enough without totally stranding us in a contextless wonderland.
And into that world there is the ever-present threat of the mob, more corporate than they are today, and striking out with resources not only of the present but with knowledge of the future, too. Make no bones about it, this is a movie that embraces many of the impacts of time travel, sometimes in horrifying ways and sometimes in very clever ones. So by the time Old Joe shows up, you know that the cause and effect of this change in timeline is messing with his head even before he admits that his memory is starting to be rewritten by his own actions and the actions of his potential-past self. It’s no Primer, but it manages to out-causal The Terminator and its sequels with smart riffs on what it means to be sent back and meddle with your own past.
I use The Terminator because in many ways Looper plays out like a smarter version of that film. And like that movie, it’s broad and expansive, playing in many different realms. This is hardly a slick, modern action movie. It takes time to live in the spaces with these characters, build relationships, and even include a healthy amount of well-written and developed romance. Sure, there’s plenty of shooting and lots of big, slightly-futuristic guns, but even that is only a fraction of the movie, punctuations of violence that frame an otherwise complicated story of changing fate and the inevitable consequences of violence.
But again, it’s hard not to spoil the game by telling you how and why it all plays out, so let’s stick to the other notable genius bit: Joe and Old Joe. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is covered in subtle but probably fairly extensive prosthetics to help massage him into Bruce Willis’ face, a tricky thing but pulled off with a daring amount of gumption that really works flawlessly nearly all the time. And beyond that, Gordon-Levitt breaks out his best Bruno impression, offering a radically different leading man than he usually plays. Joe is cocky, violent, and brash. He speaks with squints and smirks. By the time the two men find themselves talking to each other in a run down diner, they feel like two sides of the same man. It’s disconcerting just how alike they read on camera in moments where they share the screen, and one of the movie’s best tricks.
Not that Willis is any slouch, either. He seems hungrier in this role than he has in quite some time (since Sin City, easily, but maybe even earlier), sharp and quick and doing his best to capture some of Gordon-Levitt’s lighter quickness even as he plays the big heavy for much of the movie. Seeing both actors, typically very different, doing their best to meet in the middle is one of those acting moments that happens incredibly rarely and is a treat to watch simply from a movie fan standpoint. That it underlines the weirdness of the premise is just icing on the cake.
It seems weird to criticize a movie like this for being almost too smart and thinky, but I feel like the expectation was set for a specific type of high concept action film and like writer-director Rian Johnson always does, the movie goes out of its way to set up and subvert expectations. This is by far his most ambitious film, but combined much of the stylism of Brick and the emotional complexities of Brothers Bloom into a robust, genre-exceeding story that isn’t just sci-fi, isn’t just time travel, but manages to be simply great cinema.
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