Writer/director Rian Johnson is fantastic at making pretty good movies. 2005’s Brick was a slyly conceived yarn that took 1940s private dick dialogue and plot and affixed them to a modern high-school setting, with middling effect. 2008’s The Brothers Bloom was a nearly great con man movie without a great con anywhere in it. And now comes Looper, Johnson’s first foray into sci-fi and bigger budget; the result is yet another fantastically pretty good movie.
Greatness was promised by advance buzz, if the Internet was to be believed (and if the Internet can’t be believed, civilization is doomed). Unfortunately, only mostly goodness is actually delivered. Johnson again composes a rich tapestry of setting, infused with lush characters and meticulously conceived plot trappings. But right when the film needs to kick into a higher gear, opening the futuristic world up for a sizable climax, it downshifts into a muted, quasi-philosophical think-piece set mostly on a Kansas farmstead. So, there’s that.
Johnson’s imagination is vast, but he was thankfully blessed with a gift for graceful execution, as Looper has crazy big ideas but isn’t confusing in the slightest. In the future, time travel was both invented and outlawed, but the mob uses it anyway to dispose of corpses. See, they sent a boss (Jeff Daniels) back in time from the year 2070 to recruit assassins in the year 2040. When the future mafia wants somebody offed and no evidence, they grab them, put a bag on their head and send them back in time to a specific location where they are shot up with a blunderbuss.
These assassins are called “loopers” because the last person they kill is themselves; this is called “closing the loop.” After having a Freudian field day whacking their future self, the looper is given boatloads of money and can do all the crazy future drugs and hookers they want for 30 years. When “young Joe” ( Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fails to murder “old Joe” (Bruce Willis), it leads to a minimalist-yet-complicated game of cat-and-mouse that somehow features a semi-telekinetic mom (Emily Blunt) and her super-telekinetic son. Okay, so maybe everything doesn’t make perfect sense.
First, the good stuff: Gordon-Levitt and Willis have a blast aping one another, bubbling and crackling like matter in the presence of anti-matter whenever they meet. Since this film is yet another manifestation of Johnson’s obsession with film noir impressionism, Blunt is great as the “good dame in a bad spot.” Beyond the performances, Johnson’s gift at creating a believable, lived-in and unique universe is once more on display, this time featuring a few great action pieces.
But, and this is a huge but, it all goes squishy about halfway through, becoming a “would you kill a baby Hitler” time-travel meditation. The inclusion of the telekinesis does not feel organic, characters (like Daniels’) are clipped off-screen, and Johnson’s talent for intimacy causes things to wobble, leaving a largely good thriller in a strangely quiet and unsatisfying place. This isn’t a failure to “stick the landing” with third-act problems so much as it is a decision to play it safe.
Looper is easy to recommend, loads of fun and mostly clever. But when it’s not even Bruce Willis’ best time travel movie (12 Monkeys), it’s far from game-changing.
—This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.