Consider the humble Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Chocolate. Peanut Butter (-ish).
Two ingredients—each tasty enough in its own right—brought together in the right proportions. The result? Adult-onset diabetes never tasted so good.
Rian Johnson understands the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. He knows its secrets. He understands that it’s as much about the proportions as it is the ingredients (though you can’t stint on the latter).
With Looper, Johnson combines two very tasty pulp genre staples—a “kill ’em while they’re young” time travel thriller and the “rogue assassin” crime drama—to create what may be the best sci-fi thriller to hit the theaters since 1995’s Twelve Monkeys. (Apparently, co-starring with Bruce Willis in time-travel movies bodes well for the careers of young, up-and-coming actors.)
The premise is simple, to the extent that any film involving a mashup of these genres can be: In the dystopian near-future of 2044, hit men called Loopers kill and dispose of bodies sent to them from an even more dystopian—one assumes—future of 2074. (It turns out that time travel will be discovered during that 30-year span—and just as quickly outlawed—proving that those bumper stickers were right all along: When time travel is outlawed, only outlaws will use time travel.)
When the crime lords of the far future decide to cease using the Looper of the near future, they send back his older self to be killed by the younger, thus closing the loop and leaving the younger version 30 years to party like it’s 2099. All is swell until his older, steely-eyed self appears before him. Older Joe escapes, leaving his youthful counterpart to figure out how to complete his assignment or else kiss those fun-filled 30 years goodbye. The fate of a fellow looper (Paul Dano) who makes a similar mistake provides an early, horrific example of what’s on the line for both Joes.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe the younger. In his second leading role under Johnson—the first being the director’s debut, the high school hard-boiled noir Brick—Gordon-Levitt delivers another in what’s becoming a string of reliably high-caliber performances. Basically, at this point, it’s Gordon-Levitt’s career to ruin. (We’d advise avoiding heavy drug use, picking up trannies after midnight, or drunken, anti-semitic ranting.)
As Future Joe, Bruce Willis puts another notch in his belt of sci-fi classics. (I don’t know exactly what that belt looks like, but it’s gotta be FABULOUS!) His career as an action star has been marked by two “go-to” personas—one wise-cracking, one taciturn (both reliably bad-ass). In Looper, it’s Taciturn Bruce time, and the now 57-year-old actor wears it well. Of all his action hero peers, Willis may be the most likely—and worthy—to inherit the Geriatric Bad Ass mantle only recently left draped over an unoccupied chair in Tampa. Even when in taciturn mode, Willis brings a vulnerability more comparable to Harrison Ford than to Eastwood, and that vulnerability serves him well here, even as his character does some truly disturbing things as he pursues his own agenda in his past.
And this is where the Reese’s Peanut Cup analogy falls short, as I suppose all candy-based analogies must, for Looper owes its success to many more than just two ingredients. Beyond the savvy conflation of genre, there are the solid performances of not just Gordon-Levitt and Willis, but of pretty much the entire cast. (As a likable, even-keeled crime boss sent from the future to oversee operations in the present, Jeff Daniels pretty much steals every scene he’s in.)
And then there’s the look and feel of the film as a whole, which is quite an accomplishment in its own right. Cinematic future-scapes, especially near-future ones, can be tricky. Things either look too digitally sleek, too slapdash and thrown together, or too obviously derivative of past iconic visions. Ed Verreaux (production design) and James A. Gelarden (art direction) skillfully skirt these pitfalls, presenting a future where the new tech exists side by side with the old, and everything—from the auto-pilot crop duster to the blunderbusses—conveys just the right level of “used.” As a result, the world of Looper—a world of time travel and telekinesis—feels authentic in a way many contemporary dramas don’t.
With so many ingredients so tastily commingled, Rian Johnson clearly knows how to whip up a cinematic pulp confection. But with his latest, and thanks to the efforts of a sterling cast and crew, Johnson does more than merely satisfy a sweet tooth. In a genre too often filled with snacks, Looper is a meal.
Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels
Release Date: Sept. 29, 2012