Film Review: Looper

A young hit man clashes with his older self in Rian Johnson's stylish and engrossing time-travel thriller. Sci-fi and action audiences have a new cult film.

Writer-director Rian Johnson hits the big time with his third feature, Looper, an outlandish vision of the near-future which may defy credibility but is bracingly entertaining. A major leap forward from the more modest Brick and The Brothers Bloom, this energetic, mind-bending sci-fi thriller should find an appreciative cult audience similar to the one that embraced the first Matrix.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrayed a teenage sleuth in Johnson’s high-school noir Brick, here plays Joe, part of a band of young assassins, or “loopers,” who kill victims sent back 30 years from the year 2074, when time travel has been perfected but declared illegal. But something has gone terribly wrong in that faraway future: A criminal mastermind nicknamed “The Rainmaker” has decided to eliminate his brigade of hit men and “close their loops.” When Joe encounters his future self (Bruce Willis) during an assignment, the older man escapes, determined to track down and kill a young boy who will grow up to become the mysterious “Rainmaker.”

Young Joe’s own search for answers leads him to the Kansas farm of the resilient Sara (Emily Blunt), mother of a boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon) with formidable telekinetic powers. After some tense confrontations, Sara and Joe slowly bond, but future Joe will soon come calling.

Johnson asks you to accept not one but two familiar sci-fi devices—time travel and telekinesis—as common occurrences in the late 21st century, but if you can get beyond questions of that likelihood, Looper is quite the stylish diversion. The movie is filled with gratifying, idiosyncratic touches like the blunderbusses the ragtag loopers use to blow away their quarry and the way those victims suddenly appear in a remote field to meet their speedy doom. A witty writer, Johnson has young Joe stop to examine signs of thinning hair (a portent of the future Willis) and ignore advice that China is the haven of the future, not his beloved France. And throughout, working with his preferred cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Johnson displays a kinetic eye for composition and movement that keeps his dystopian world visually striking. (Interestingly, there’s no effort to create “futuristic” clothing styles; fashion choices are decidedly retro.)

Because re-casting either Gordon-Levitt or Willis wasn’t an option, Johnson chose to add prosthetics to the younger actor to try to make him look like the veteran action star. The mission isn’t successful—to me, the altered Gordon-Levitt looks more like Daniel Radcliffe—but the rising star does capture Willis’ sardonic voice and mannerisms with great skill. After prominent roles in Christopher Nolan’s Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, Gordon-Levitt proves he can carry a major film on his shoulders and imbue a hard-boiled role with magnetism and intelligence. Willis, often underrated, also delivers the goods as future Joe, who’s haunted by the death of his lover and driven by vengeance. Blunt, adept at both romantic comedies and action films, adds soul and mystery to the story as a mother with intriguing secrets of her own. And it’s fun to see Jeff Daniels cast against type as the jaded crime boss who oversees the loopers.

The premise may be over-the-top, but Looper has the courage of its convictions and provides a wild, imaginative ride for sci-fi devotees.