Miller’s Crossing. The Royal Tenenbaums. Magnolia. Three Kings. All films by modern American directors who already showed considerable early promise with their first two movies, only to hit the ball right out the park with number three.
Rian Johnson does just that with Looper, an extraordinary time-travel tale that’s as intricately and elegantly constructed as the pocket watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitman Joe keeps close by. Much like Johnson’s 2005 debut, the Gordon-Levitt-starring high-school noir Brick, Looper comes complete with its own lexicon, starting with the title.
A ‘looper’ is a specialised assassin. His job – not a particularly difficult one, it must be said – is to bump off mob targets that arrive hogtied, hooded and helpless, then dispose of their corpses. The twist is that those marked for death are being sent back from 30 years in the future – 2074 to be precise – when time travel has finally been invented.
Practised so the Mafia can hide their dirty laundry in the past, the only rule is “never let your target escape” – even if that target happens to be your future self. This is called “closing the loop”. When the Mafia think it’s time to retire their assassin, they send his future self back to be shot by his 2044 self.
Crack to the future
The situation only gets stickier when future Joe (Bruce Willis) arrives in the past with his own agenda - a Shanghai surprise that will throw everyone for a loop. We could tell you more, but then we’d have to kill you.
It has something to do with The Rainmaker, a mysterious Keyser Soze-like figure who has been closing all the loops in 2074, but we’ve already said too much…
Undeniably, Looper is conceptually big, bold and brave enough to stand alongside The Terminator, Back To The Future and Willis’ own 12 Monkeys. “This time-travel crap fries your brain like an egg,” says Jeff Daniels’ Mafia mentor Abe.
Yet Johnson pulls together a plot that plays fair with the genre’s internal logic. It’s a world where carving a message in your arm will leave a scar for your future self to read, or where further physical trauma can literally leave you cracking up.
Crucially, for all its tick-tock plotting, there’s an emotional story at Looper’s core, bringing gravitas to its grand design. Themes of nature vs. nurture, family, redemption and undying love circle around these morally ambiguous characters - issues that come sharply into focus with the arrival of Sara (Emily Blunt), a shotgun-wielding single mother who allows Joe to take refuge on her farm.
Leaving behind the self-conscious dialogue of 2005’s Brick and the overcooked quirk of his 2008 follow-up The Brothers Bloom, Johnson beautifully constructs a world in which hope and possibility are on offer (even if it’s in the past).
One of the movie’s real high points is its vision of tomorrow’s world. Looper’s future is not so different that it seems alien to us; its rendering is as subtle as the prosthetics that pad out Levitt’s face: far-away backdrops, skyline shots, a floating vehicle here and there…
Yes, you can see the Blade Runner influence in Ed Verreaux’s production design, but never to the point of slavish homage. Just the occasional jarring oddity - some characters can float coins with a mysterious telekinetic power - puts Johnson’s universe askew from ours.
It doesn’t want for action, either. Never mind the heavy artillery Willis flaunts in The Expendables 2; when he finally picks up some hardware in Looper, it’s one of the most thrilling face-offs since he tore up the Nakatomi Plaza.
If there’s a flaw, aside from certain plot-points that defy Johnson’s own logic, it’s that the director lets the pace dip a little too much prior to this, in the farmhouse scenes. Although the latter interlude does allow Blunt to flourish in one of her best dramatic roles since My Summer Of Love.
Likewise, Willis gives us Bruce without the smirk, showing the same wistful sadness he deployed in the obviously influential 12 Monkeys.
As for the bravura flash-forward, in which we see the transition from Gordon-Levitt to Willis, it’s the moment you realise Johnson’s hit a home run.
The best sci-fi movie since Moon. The best time-travel yarn since 12 Monkeys. And one of the best films of 2012. You’ll immediately want to see it again.