Rian Johnson has only made three movies, but already he’s built quite a reputation for himself. His debut, 2006’s Brick, blended Film Noir into contemporary cinema so seamlessly as to feel like a trick. His follow-up, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom didn’t reach the same highs, but that was more a consequence of his unrestrained ambition and meta-statements than any shortcoming.
Today we get his third movie, Looper, an action film that, like his previous films is doing a lot more than its synopsis suggests. Looper synthesizes time travel, chases, super powers, drug addiction, parenting and big guns into an action movie so full of ideas, it absolutely should have fallen apart long before the movie hit the third act. But Looper never self-destructs, which alone says plenty about its quality.
It pits two versions of one character against each other – already it sounds like a psychological deconstruction, but this is hardly a cerebral indie. One is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a hit-man who is sent his marks from the future for easy assassinations. The other is played by Bruce Willis, that same character but from further down its timeline by thirty years, sent back to be disposed of by the younger man. Uneasy but hardly conflicted, Gordon-Levitt’s character shoots to kill, but Willis’ character gets away.
Now the two have to try to track each other down – the younger one to finish the job he started to please his employers, and the older one for assistance in solving a problem that would have been much more difficult to take care of in his “present” than this “past,” which we would consider our not-too-distant future.
I try not to spend too much time on story, but it took me over 150 words to just detail the gist of this plot – most of which is moved past once we hit the second hour. It’s a complex line that crosses itself a couple of times. Effortlessly hitting several points without needing to, Looper thereby adds to the richness of the conflict. This thing should have been a mess, but Johnson finds a way to tell the story that feels natural and explains his future-setting (that includes some narration from Gordon-Levitt – it’s badly needed at the beginning, but the script leans too heavily on it after twenty minutes).
As remarkably as Johnson handles the complications of his story, it would be selling Looper short to speak only of these accomplishments. Because, these issues aside, Looper is really a fantastic action movie. If all of the dialogue were cut and we had to form the story from scratch, we would still have a tense showdown with visual flair and occasionally fierce cutting that allows the violence to hit especially hard in this R-rated flick.
When Looper passes the half-way mark, its setting radically changes to something much less futuristic than expectations have set up. The tone of the film also settles down, resembling a Western more than the Science Fiction that is still running the story. The shift isn’t so severe that it feels like it belongs to a different movie, but it does make for a weaker film than the higher-concept beginning. There was a lot of material to build upon from the beginning, but the direction Looper takes instead is still strong, solid work – though it can’t help but feel like a step down from the first portion.
This switch feels a little unnatural, but it doesn’t stall Looper from its double-stuft adventure. On one hand its a fresh take on time-travel, on the other it’s an action movie that never stops kicking ass. On the other hand it’s internal conflict externalized. On the other hand it’s a story of motherhood.
Figuring what to classify Looper as is difficult. But it’s pretty obvious that it’s a superiorly fun movie that keeps the wheels turning in your head.
For a more mixed reaction to the movie check out the Looper review of the Cap’n