Review: Though Action Is Present, "Looper" Excels Through Heady Sci-Fi, Powerful Emotion, & Rich Characters

Review: Though Action Is Present, "Looper" Excels Through Heady Sci-Fi, Powerful Emotion, & Rich Characters

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Director: Rian Johnson
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Pierce Gagnon
Running time: 118 minutes
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Score: 8/10

Those glossy commercials airing on TV coupled with a name like Bruce Willis might lead one to believe that Looper is the kind of whiz-bang science fiction entertainment that would've felt right at home with a summer release date, popcorn sold separately. But anyone who enters writer-director Rian Johnson's atypically nuanced action-adventure flick with such preconceptions are in for a rude, and also entirely pleasant, awakening: Looper is anything but mindless escapism.

Rather, it's the best sci-fi film to receive a wide theatrical debut in quite some time, and the credit goes to Mr. Johnson's independent sensibilities, which were on full display in 2005's modern-day, high school Humphrey Bogart reinterpretation Brick and the 2008 small-scale caper romp The Brothers Bloom. Handled by a less soulful director, the material could have played like last year's wretched Justin Timberlake vehicle In Time. Johnson, however, displays a deep affinity for his characters and just enough investment in the mechanics of time travel to have it all make tangential sense.

As Bruce Willis' character, the grown-up Joseph Simmons, says at one point, "I don't want to talk about this time travel shit." That quote nicely encapsulates Johnson's handling of Looper's headier narrative elements, for which the ambitious filmmaker quickly establishes his self-made 2044 society before largely abandoning sci-fi for emotionally heavy drama. The pieces all move around younger Joe Simmons, played by an unrecognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt, covered in makeup to look more like Willis while speaking and walking in a Willis impersonation that's deftly executed.

Present-day Joe is a "looper," one of many agents whose job it is to immediately kill targets sent back from 30 years into the future. It's a Mafia-run procedure overseen by the seasoned, easily irritable crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), and Joe has tired of the gig. When he's not practicing his French through language books-on-tape, Joe is dreaming about leaving his current home of Kansas City for greener, loop-free pastures. But then the older Joe (inhabited by Willis through his best and most in-tune acting in years) shows up in his sights one day, thwarts the homicide, and turns youthful Joe into a target himself.

With all his storytelling pieces firmly in place, Johnson spends the majority of Looper stretching the actors' abilities through sharp, briskly moving dialogue and high-stakes, interpersonal dealings, not a succession of death-defying stunts, though the film certainly has its fair share of show-stopping theatrics. He's also full of morbid imagination, graphically demonstrating what happens to older, former loopers once their younger selves die (think evaporation, only with flesh and bone) and, in a third act blast of visual grandeur, showing the gruesome, skin-splitting effects of telekinesis. Yet, even in the film's most stylish moments, Looper never loses touch with its large, steadily beating heart.

Pumping an overflow of blood into Looper's figurative ticker is Emily Blunt, the always on-point and touchingly vulnerable actress who serves as the film's linchpin for a series of late-game twists that are best left to each viewer's own experience and interpretation. Blunt plays the defiant but fragile Sara, a single mother living on an isolated farm with her whip-smart, enigmatic son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon, giving a towering, seriously imposing pre-teen performance). The mother and child factor into young Joe's redemption saga in fascinating and unexpected ways, and it's in their interactions that Johnson's true intentions come to light: As a storyteller, he's wholly invested in what time travel does to Looper's characters, not how they navigate through it.

It takes a special kind of filmmaker to rivetingly examine lofty subjects like the difficulties attached to breaking the repetition of one's mistakes and how letting go of one's selfishness can bravely set things right in a universe overrun by wrongs, all while keeping the popcorn crowd's surface-level needs satiated. With Looper, Rian Johnson reassures the most passionate of cinephiles that high-concept genre fare can still simultaneously provoke thoughts and overload the senses. In that regard, it's this year's Drive, which subverted Fast & Furious expectations via Nicolas Winding Refn's art-house ways. The 50 or so people who actually paid to see the aforementioned In Time in theaters have been warned.

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Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)



Tags: looper, joseph-gordon-levitt, bruce-willis, emily-blunt, rian-johnson, noah-segan, jeff-daniels, piper-perabo
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