This review was previously published on September 6, 2012, as part of Film.com's Toronto International Film Festival 2012 coverage.
There is a shortlist of movies whose openings are mini-masterpieces of economic storytelling. An explosion of perfectly boiled-down moments stitched together with a dynamism and precision that simply does not let up. The gold medalist for me will forever be "Annie Hall" with "Raising Arizona" and "GoodFellas" nipping at its heels. It will take another viewing to confirm this, but the whirlwind beginning of the high concept science fiction adventure "Looper" may be a new addition to this club.
That second viewing is definitely in the cards for me, not because "Looper" is difficult to follow, but because I'm still shocked and amazed that this time-travel movie made so much sense. In an age where filmmakers are more likely to to shrug and suggest you simply embrace mystery, writer-director Rian Johnson ("The Brothers Bloom") draws a line in the sand and says "no." He has ideas - fun ideas - and he's got a story to tell. Fans of rich sci-fi may want to keep a handkerchief on hand lest they find themselves drooling, while those who simply like a fun adventure with great actors in juicy roles ought to have a good ride, too. "Looper" is, no doubt about it, a terrific film.
It's the future. It's a mess. Crime syndicates run everything and those looking for a way out of poverty are working for them. One job is as a Looper, a low-rent assassin whose only skill is to be punctual. You go to a spot in a field, wait for someone to magically appear, then you blast them with a special kind of gun that never misses its target if used at close range.
Wait, magically appear? Yes, because in the far future (the future's future, work with me) they have invented time travel. Disposing of bodies is impossible in the future, so the mob sends guys they want to whack back in time where no one will miss them. Being a Looper is steady work (with access to addictive drugs) and there's a nice severance package. You get a solid pay-out on the day you "close your loop" - when you kill your future self. (The crime lords like to sever all ties to the very illegal use of time travel.)
On the day you close your loop, you get a ticket to live 30 years in a party frenzy (or so it would seem) - but what happens when you can't kill your future self?
Can't kill or won't kill? This and many other scenarios are played out and, my Lord, this is all still in the very first chunk of the movie and I'm still leaving a boatload of stuff out. This alone makes "Looper," a studio movie with a genuine budget, an absolute miracle. How the hell did the studio heads sit through the pitch?
"Looper"'s star is ostensibly Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but he shares an awful lot of the spotlight with his older self, Bruce Willis. JGL (and a soupçon of makeup) evoke the spirit of Willis without resorting to mimicry. It's a very different type of role for him; he's sympathetic, but frequently makes the wrong or selfish move. Willis is similarly layered. It's one of his quiet, brooding performances, similar to "Unbreakable," and while he may come off mean or amoral, there are quick flashes justifying his behavior that are quite heartbreaking.
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"Looper" is not flawless. There are a number of narrative twists (again, how did this get greenlit?) and, for my tastes, the movie ends in a corner of the story less interesting to me than some of the other stuff. That there are so many crevices, however, is a testament to its world-building. From the billboards, to the costumes to the weapons and props there is, quite simply, a surplus of stuff up there on the screen. I mean, it took me until the end of the movie to realize that Garrett Dillahunt, one of my favorite character actors, was in this movie. That's no diss against Dillahunt, it's a salute to the dizzying nature of the film.
When the movie does eventually slow down it may shift a bit, but it never stops making sense. All the sci-fi works. The paradoxes of time travel are shown rather than, to paraphrase Willis' character, mapped out with straws on a table. I scribbled a number of questions during the film and, upon reflection, 98% of them were all answered in the text. The few niggling issues feel resolved in a thematic sense. This is, in short, a smart movie.
It's also a movie that rarely gets made these days. "12 Monkeys," I suppose, might be the last whacked-out big budget trip that felt so legit and so accomplished. Let's hope Bruce Willis can continue to come back to us for more.