"Looper" sounds much more complicated than it is. In 2074, time travel has been invented, and made illegal. In 2044, neither of these things has happened. So the mob of 60 years from now decides to start sending their undesirables back in time three decades to get whacked; waiting to shoot them upon arrival are hit men known as "loopers." One day, they send you back in time to be killed by yourself - "closing the loop." Today, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's loop gets closed, and we quickly realize why he's wearing a prosthetic nose and forehead - the 30 years older Levitt is Bruce Willis.
Yes, it sounds overly complicated; yes, it's a bit too satisfied with its own clever construction; and yes, all of the above is explained in an atrocious (and at the end of the day unnecessary) voiceover. Yet with Levitt and Willis, it's easy to forgive any missteps in the plotting. To give away too much of what happens (past what Levitt groans over the first ten minutes of the film) would be unfair, and could even render the movie irrelevant. The fun is in the way it zips through alternate futures, different timelines, disparate cinematic styles, and more; always staying coherent and keeping our interest - mainly thanks to the wonder of Bruce Willis.
Willis isn’t really a good or a bad guy here: clad in a T-shirt soaked with blood, flippant at the idea of murder, and obsessed with his pocket watch, he actually just seems to be playing his character from "Pulp Fiction" again. But this is a colder, wearier performance than that; and shots that position Bruce as if he were Henry Fonda in "Once Upon a Time in the West" don’t feel unearned.
To reveal his character’s exact situation would, again, be unfair. But an early montage sequence (perhaps the films best moments, in fact,) sees director Rian Johnson pack 30 years of Bruce’s life into a few exhilarating minutes. Needless to say, he is pissed, out for blood, and will go through anyone - yes, even himself - to get even. That’s about as good an anchor as an American action movie can get, and this is one of the great genre performances of recent times. When Johnson inevitably ventures into the shaky waters of "big important themes" and imparting messages, it’s the pain and longing in Willis’ face that keeps it human.
And speaking of Johnson, whose previous pictures - "Brick" and "The Brothers Bloom" - felt more like film school experiments than like heartfelt stories (one was a high school picture done with 40’s style noir dialogue, the other was a French New Wave style deconstruction of the storytelling process,) his ambition and audacity finally shine through his film’s flaws. His plot and setting allow for some incredibly provocative images - the wordless first sequence is a stunner. Unfortunately, he castrates much of his own power with the voiceover, which makes the whole ’looping’ process feel normal when to simply see it divorced from words and explanations would render it as a dreamy, terrifying, powerful image. He traded something that could have been striking, original, and unnerving for something that’s slightly easier to understand, and it took me the whole two hours to come to terms with that.
Still, his vision of the future - which is more focused on farms and crowds of vagrants than it is on the usual sci-fi tenants of big government and advanced technology - is fresh, smart, and ultimately somewhat close-to-home ("I’m from the future," a villainous Jeff Daniels pontificates, "trust me, you should go to China.") And unlike his previous pictures, when he "winks" to his audience here (and he does that plenty, the "Pulp Fiction" and "Once Upon a Time" references are supplanted by nods to everything from "The Terminator" to Godard’s "2 or 3 Things I Know About Her") it feels organic instead of shoehorned-in. He’s learned how to marry style and content, so finally his divergences and film-school flourishes feel like pieces of the whole rather than the entire point.
But unfortunately, the film can’t keep it up: a second half that takes place largely on a farm is missing the kinetic camerawork, strong compositions, and breakneck pace of the first hour, and without all the exhilarating craft, the character work starts to fall apart. Emily Blunt enters the picture to clean Joseph Gordon-Levitt up (he uses drugs for the majority of the first half), and as soon as he sobers up, so does Johnson’s camerawork (not a good thing).
The action becomes self-important, the conversations become dull, and the film’s primary interest switches from exploring the idea of confronting your own mistakes into something broader about protecting free will and always keeping ’the greater good’ in mind. When the film is about a man confronting himself decades earlier, impossibly frustrated at the futility of changing his path, it’s brilliant. When it’s about how we all just need to be better to each other and hope for the best, it feels like idealistic nonsense.
Still, I can forgive the dorm room-ready philosophical asides and bumper-sticker-style messages about protecting the future thanks to performances this gruff and a world outlook this cold (and, recalling the China line and the depiction of America as a broken-former superpower, a future this believable). And indeed, if you take the voiceover out of the first act, you’re looking at the best filmmaking of the year. But sadly, the film’s few moments of true brilliance - basically a man sitting at a table with himself, frustrated that he can’t even communicate with his own brain - are lost in the shuffle, the victim of big talking points and of Johnson thinking he has something very ’important’ to say about human nature.
What could have been a great movie is instead rendered a very good one; an altogether entertaining spectacle that left me with a feeling of disappointment if only because I can just feel how close it is to be something more, something stronger, something perfect. Rian Johnson has a great film in him somewhere; I’m convinced. This just isn’t it.