'Looper': Joseph Gordon-Levitt Brings Back Bruce Willis' Glory Days in Rian Johnson's Time-Travel Thriller (MOVIE REVIEW)

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“It does everything right” is just about as ambiguous a compliment as one can give a film, but Looper deserves such praise, if only as the tip of a very large iceberg of kudos.

Thoughtful, intimate, and deeply moving, writer-director Rian Johnson’s assured and perfectly-measured third feature is one of the best films of the year. It's also the sort of spectacle that qualifies budding auteurs as worthy candidates for A-list franchises – or at the very least, for final cut on all future projects.

Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hired killer in a dilapidated metropolis who dispatches mob victims after his bosses from 30 years in the future send them his way in a time machine. But when they send back his older self (Bruce Willis) – who’s none too pleased about receiving a death sentence – Joe finds himself on a suicidal man hunt. Simultaneously, Older Joe chases down the people he believes are responsible for his attempted murder and tries to change history by killing them first.

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While there were flashes of true greatness in both of Johnson’s previous films – 2005’s Brick and 2008’s The Brothers Bloom – he makes a quantum leap forward with Looper, which not only shifts into previously unexplored territory as a sci-fi tale, but demonstrates such a completeness of vision that "closing the loop" seems not just like a plot point but a personal mantra for the filmmaker.

On a purely logical level, Johnson accounts for, well, if not every eventuality, then every one that’s important or interesting, and then builds that into the film’s science, and eventually its story. (He astutely avoids opening the film up to nitpicking dissections by mostly acknowledging that even the people who are familiar with time travel can’t explain it, and those they might explain it to can’t understand it.)

But Johnson’s construction of the future landscape where time travel is possible is key to the film’s deeper narrative weight and emotional resonance. By comparison, the unrecognizable, cool-obsessed futurism of something like Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake never feels real or recognizable, and therefore gives us little reason (even subconsciously) to care.

Joe's world, in both the future and the future-future, seems like a generational reach from our own. Flying vehicles occasionally breach a horizon filled with desperately high skyscrapers, but they are complemented by earthbound transportation and surrounded by poverty and squalor.

Beyond the subtle thoroughness of his visual backdrop, however, Johnson focuses sharply on the characters and what happens to them, making us care enough to watch them make mistakes and still love them anyway. Both Joes are on missions of at least semi-self-delusion, and one character who’s meant to be an innocent bystander becomes occasionally terrifying. But Johnson’s interest is less in judging his characters than in understanding them, which is why viewers may feel inclined to forgive their transgressions.

Willis and Gordon-Levitt bring Joe’s multigenerational existential crisis to life and make it palpably relatable. In recent years, Willis has frequently seemed bored on screen, but here he’s clear-eyed and committed to Johnson’s vision, delivering a complex performance that ranks among his best.

Gordon-Levitt continues his meteoric ascent to stardom, communicating alternate measures of youthful stubbornness and common sense that doesn’t need another 30 years to mature. Even behind prosthetics that make him look just enough like Willis to convince the audience that they’re the same, Gordon-Levitt’s performance feels less like an impersonation of his older co-star than a true twentysomething version of Joe, both making the character an inherited persona and one he created from scratch.

Meanwhile, Emily Blunt plays a key role in the film as a farm owner who begrudgingly allows Young Joe to hole up in the barn while trying to evade his employers and stop Older Joe. Johnson's screenplay imbues the character with a rich and remarkable complexity that makes her Joe’s equal, but Blunt turns her into something truly special – formidable but vulnerable, and deeply human.

Conversely, Noah Segan plays an almost cartoonish role as Kid Blue, the ambitious but reckless newcomer hoping to win the favor of Joe’s boss. That such nuance and broad caricature can exist in the same place and feel totally natural is a testament to Johnson’s dexterity developing and then paying off each idea he introduces.

Ultimately, Looper’s effectiveness speaks less to fulfilling the audience’s expectations than executing Johnson’s ambitions. Rather than simply going big with his first major studio movie, the young filmmaker (he's 38) germinated his ideas into a focused, sophisticated and elegant story that has all of the visceral elements to keep viewers entertained, but also the intellectual and emotional ones to keep them intrigued and invested.

Whether all of that makes Johnson ideally suited to be the next tentpole helmer or dollhouse maker remains to be seen. But even if you’re unsure if he can do everything right just yet, Looper demonstrates that he’s already capable of anything.

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