Action movies have no respect for their audiences. “Meh, we don’t give two craps about the plot, just blow up a bunch of stuff, that’ll put butts in the seats,” they sneer, catering to nothing most base of human interests. It’s annoying to have to praise something just for not being utterly insulting, but “Looper” is a rare exception to such standards… and then some.
The year is 2044. Time travel has not been invented yet, but 30 years into the future, it will be invented, and the mafia will exploit it to take care of people they don’t exactly take a liking to, see?
Here’s how they do it: they tie up their quarry and send them back in time where an assassin called a “looper” quickly kills them and collects the bars of silver strapped to their back as payment. Getting paid in silver provides loopers easy access to the high life, as Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discovers, using the payment to finance his life of drugs, his shiny car and his endless parties at strip clubs while covertly saving up to move out of the country. Not bad, eh?
Unfortunately, looping has a dark side: there comes a time in every looper’s career where they must “close their loop”: A looper’s future self is sent back in time as their target, sealing their death in 30 years. Sure, you get a handsome payment for closing your loop, but Joe’s friends are getting their loops closed left and right, and Joe fears he may be next. His suspicions are confirmed when his future self (Bruce Willis) appears and escapes, sending Joe into a race against time to stop his future self from carrying out his mysterious mission and get his life back.
In a way, “Looper” is the ultimate geek movie fantasy, one that deserves both responses of “ERMAHGERD THERT WERS DER BERST MERVEH ERVER!” and “I say, old chap, that was quite stimulating!” The movie doesn’t just ask the audience, “Wouldn’t it be cool if time travel was used this way?” It explores the moral and sociological ramifications of its “multiple possibilities and timelines” premise and each character has shades of grey in their motivations. Who’s the real hero here? That’s up to the audience to decide.
The film’s world-building is also excellent. Everything is naturally integrated into the story and just feels “right” within the film’s universe. Fashion, social interactions and the monotonies and anomalies of daily life in this bleak future are all seamlessly woven in with Joe’s story. It’s fascinating to behold – especially in the way that writer/director Rian Johnson’s dialogue and skill with showing rather than telling brings wit and snap to the exposition and character setups of the film’s opening scenes.
This is all well and good, but the best thing about “Looper” is that it isn’t just another soulless wall-to-wall boomfest (like a Michael Bay film, or like the somewhat deceptive trailers make it out to be). The film does not skimp on action scenes, but it doesn’t overdo them, either. Rather than throwing in a fight scene at random or having the final act take place almost entirely on a farm “just because it’s cool,” the film takes time to build up relationships between the characters so that when someone dies, you care about why that person died and who they were as a person. Death means something here, unlike the soulless “Transformers” films, where everyone is a disposable cardboard cutout just thrown in to advance the plot. It also helps that Johnson’s direction during the action scenes is smooth, uncluttered, and keeps the characters in focus, rather than fetishizing the massive arterial sprays or sweet guns (both of which there are plenty).
“Looper” is filled not with stereotypes and placeholders, but people, people that are actually interesting, and it helps that all the actors are at the top of their game. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is both charming and hard-edged as Joe, and he knows exactly when to hold back and when to go for the jugular. Bruce Willis also pulls off some of his best acting in years, shifting between world-weariness, intensity and snark with ease. The numerous supporting players, including Jeff Daniels as the head of the loopers, Piper Perabo as a showgirl Joe has a personal attachment to and Paul Dano (Holy crap, he’s in, like, everything now) as Joe’s weaselly friend turn in great work as well, but the film’s standouts are Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon as a mother and her son who Joe encounters on his journey. The steely-with-a-soft-interior Blunt and Gagnon form the film’s tender emotional core and gives light to some touching themes about family and interpersonal connections without feeling sappy or forced.
The final verdict? WHY HAVEN’T YOU SEEN IT ALREADY OH MY GOD “Looper” is a sterling example of what a modern action film should be.
Speakeasy Grade: A-
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content