‘Looper’ unleashes Rian Johnson’s skill as a skilled storyteller

Courtesy of TriStar Pictures
Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

Rian Johnson is one to watch. The writer-director has given Hollywood only a few movies, but they’re exquisite originals that have very little comparison to anything else that’s hitting giga-plexes nowadays. His latest is Looper, a wickedly cool film that feels like a cross between Sin City and Inception — but, of course, it’s not. It’s so much more and thus so very different.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the DeNiro to Johnson’s Scorsese) plays Joe, a hit man with the unenviable task of “closing loops.” Without giving too much of this time-travel piece away, in the not-too-distant future, the mob goes after its enemies by killing them 30 years in the past. Joe is one of several hit men who dispatches these sorry souls, essentially obliterating their existence when they teleport to three-decades-ago land.

Here’s the catch: Joe at a much older age (played by Bruce Willis) is sent back in time, ready to be looped himself. Now Joe is faced with a predicament: What does he do with himself? And how does he stop the hand that feeds him?

Jeff Daniels turns up as a nasty boss in the past (or present, or future, I’m confused), and Emily Blunt is a lonesome woman living in the middle of nowhere with nothing but an enormous secret to keep her company. Despite these strong supporting characters, much of the focus is on Gordon-Levitt. The young “It” actor offers a memorable performance as Joe. With heavy makeup and possibly prosthetics altering his brow, he looks ripped from the pages of a comic book. Not exactly my first choice for a brutish hit man, but somehow Gordon-Levitt pulls off the character, and then some.

Willis is given the “father” figure role, although it’s interesting because he’s passing lessons to his younger self. There are many existential, philosophical debates within the narrative — plus lots of shoot-’em-up violence. As these things go, the script becomes quite convoluted, entering head-scratching territory a few times. But Johnson keeps control of the ghost in the machine and lets these characters build toward their surprising ends.

The movie’s style is beautiful. I definitely believe it’s one of the most original movie in years, but there are obvious influences. Philip K. Dick? Sure. Terry Gilliam? Him, too. In many ways, Johnson is combining multiple cinematic genres into an edgier monster that brims with bravado. The visuals are simple and effective — sci-fi done right.

The script is complicated but never off-topic. There are many avenues for the cast and director to take, and somehow they take all the right ones. Each of the characters receives ample time for development, and the action always seems balanced with the thoughtfulness of profound questions. This could be the most violent lesson in sociology, psychology and philosophy that I’ve ever come across.

Kudos to the whole team for a risk that pays off.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Looper

  • 2012

  • Written and directed by Rian Johnson

  • Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels, Emily Blunt and Piper Perabo

  • Running time: 120 minutes

  • Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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