Imagination and daring are two things rarely associated with mainstream Hollywood releases. Many movies may start with interesting ideas, but after studios get their hands on them, break down the scripts into their most basic – and saleable – parts and screen test the film into oblivion, the original idea from the beginning is almost unrecognizable.
That's a part of the reason why "Looper" feels so fresh and fascinating. This isn't to say that the movie is good by exception or that it's only good because everything else is so bad. Writer/director Rian Johnson's wildly inventive time travel noir is great on its own merits; the fact that it represents a middle finger to the blandly predictable movies audiences have grown accustomed to is only a bonus.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a "looper" for the mob in the future. A looper works as a low-level assassin; mob bosses from the future send people they want dead back in time to Joe, who kills them and disposes of the body. Besides the dirty profession, life is good for Joe; he's paid well for his services and has friends both at his level (like "Ruby Sparks"'s Paul Dano) and above, including the loopers' leader, Abe, played with a laid-back menace by "The Newsroom"'s Jeff Daniels.
That is, until the future sends back Joe's future self, played by Bruce Willis, for elimination. Joe accidentally lets Future Joe escape, causing a massive manhunt as the rest of the looper crew – as well as specialized killers called gat men – tracks down Joe, who's chasing after his older self in the hopes of saving himself.
I hope you got all of that because that's only half of the story. Breaking down the labyrinth of timelines and plotlines in "Looper" into a few scant paragraphs is simply not something the human mind is capable of doing.
Yet even with its crazy, mind-bending story (Emily Blunt also plays a role far more important than the previews and ads would make it seem), "Looper" never becomes impenetrable as many time travel films can. Johnson's written a puzzle indeed, but one that can be enjoyed on a single viewing and enhanced with others.
It's not just the intricate story that's worth coming back for. Johnson's dystopian future (is there really any other kind?) is intriguingly thought-out. The intricacies of the future mob and its dealings are fascinating to watch unfold, and the universe the mobsters and loopers play around in – a noir-tinged vision of bad guys, bad women, drugs and dark alleys infested with poor – is thrilling.
His dialogue is just as whip-smart. A conversation between Joe and Old Joe at a country diner, for instance, simply crackles. Johnson has to pour out a lot of exposition and details about his time travel future and the people in inhabit it, so the fact that "Looper" never feels like an info dump (a problem even "Inception" found itself with) is a tribute to the writing, which manages to make the much-maligned use of voiceover interesting.
Johnson made his memorable debut with 2005's "Brick," the modern high school mystery that talked like a hardboiled detective noir. If that film's hyper-stylized dialogue was Johnson's bold, if flawed, introduction to audiences, "Looper" represents his hard-edged creativity finessed. A few times, admittedly, the drama gets a bit overheated, especially whenever Joe's bumbling gat man rival gets involved, but this is a small price to pay.
For those looking for intense action, "Looper" provides that as well. Johnson is still developing as an action director; for instance, he indulges himself on a few lens glares, though nowhere near a J.J. Abrams level. However, his setpiece moments are still intense and pulse-pounding. And as hoity-toity as this sounds, his camera movements are refreshing to watch, relying more on pans and tilts than the usual shaky cam-crazy edits combo directors have beaten audiences into accepting.
I know this review has pretty much been 663 words of verbal drool. I can admit "Looper" has some flaws, especially midway through the film when the story changes tone and slows down its electric pace. Never mind that; it picks back up easily (with one of the movie's best sequences for that matter). So pardon my enthusiasm; movies as invigorating as this just don't come around enough.
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