(by Dustin Putman
More cerebral than grand-standingly emotional, "Looper" earns its placement as a bold new vision in the science-fiction genre through its equipped telling of story and minimal need for audience hand-holding. The brainchild of writer-director Rian Johnson (2006's "Brick"), the film whisks its viewers immediately into the future - Kansas City, 2044, to be exact - treating it as if it were any regular present-day tale. The differences are subtle, but apparent, as the world has developed in several technological ways while suffering all the more from mounting crime rates. Johnson is straightforward and nonchalant in how he peels back his narrative, using tautly-chosen visuals and the occasional voiceovers of Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) to explain the ins and outs of a landscape at once new and foreign. Narration is frequently used in cinema as a crutch to get over hurdles inherent in a weak screenplay, but there are other times when it is used smartly and efficiently, and this is one of them. If "Looper" doesn't hold up to the closest of scrutiny that comes with movies dealing in time travel, it compensates with slick innovation and an enthralling plot that keeps redefining itself with unexpected turns. Throughout, one feels like he or she is experiencing a fresh spin on well-versed topics suddenly made new again. Article continues below
In 2074, time travel is possible, but outlawed, used in secret to "close loops" by sending former assassins back in time by thirty years with the sole purpose of being done away with. In 2044, one such current hit man is Joe, perfecting his professional craft like a well-oiled machine until, one day, his older self (Bruce Willis) appears to him as his latest target. Having seen the terrible consequences that became of colleague Seth (Paul Dano) when he allowed the 60-year-old version of himself to escape, Joe is prepared to shoot and sign his own fate. He hesitates for only a moment, but that's enough time to be knocked unconscious. When he comes to, finding and killing the elder Joe becomes his sole mission before Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man from the future sent back in time to run the loopers, finds out the truth. Meanwhile, the Joe of the future has only one thing on his mind: vengeance on the man who is predestined to one day be responsible for ending the life of his beloved wife (Summer Qing).
"Looper" follows in the footsteps of 2011's "The Adjustment Bureau" and "Source Code" as another intelligent modern sci-fi film, one that favors ideas over empty-souled fireworks and bombast. If a movie such as this one is working as it should, anyway, the visuals will become a seamless extension of everything else. Director Rian Johnson's directing style calls for plenty of quick edits and a radical pace - the electronica-fused score by composer Nathan Johnson coolly accompanies many of the scenes - to the point where it can get a little dizzying. He does know when to pull back, though, especially in the second half when the younger Joe's voyage leads him to a farmhouse lived in by a single mother, Sara (Emily Blunt), and her young son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). What feels rather extraneous at first glance grows an extra dimension when their roles prove to have far more importance within the story at hand than anyone imagines.
Joe is a difficult guy to size up - he's a cold-blooded assassin, but look, he's also learning French to impress a roadside diner waitress (Tracie Thoms) and has a sensitive side hidden underneath. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2012's "Premium Rush"), under latex make-up that will take many viewers aback, embodies some of older counterpart Bruce Willis' (2012's "The Expendables 2") typical smirks and mannerism. Unfortunately, despite everyone's best efforts, Gordon-Levitt still doesn't look at all like Willis and the two of them never believably blur to become the same person they're supposed to be. Fortunately, there's a useful thing called a suspension of disbelief. If Joe isn't exactly the warmest of fellows to get behind, Gordon-Levitt is never less than entirely watchable, and even Willis visibly tries a little harder here. He doesn't look like he's sleepwalking, so that's a positive start. As Sara, Emily Blunt (2012's "The Five-Year Engagement") makes the most of a smallish supporting role, bringing regret to a lonely woman trying to make amends for the mistakes she's made in raising Cid. Speaking of Cid, Pierce Gagnon (2010's "The Crazies") is exceptional, doing an incalculable amount with just a facial expression or a delivery of a line that could put to shame actors three or four times his age. He is undoubtedly one of this year's noteworthy child phenoms, up there with Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
"Looper" delves into the fine line between chance and fate, questioning along the way if such things can be changed, or should be. For the Joe of 2044, signing the 2074 Joe's death warrant is akin to committing suicide. Once done, his day of judgment, so to speak, will be set in stone - or, based on the events within, might they, too, be potentially malleable? Brutal and chilling, if not air-tight, it is best to allow the many pleasures of "Looper" to sweep over without dwelling too closely on particulars. Time travel is hard to get right, and director Rian Johnson was wise to not try to explain its creation or the close ins and outs of how it works. In his world, it just is, and it's about to cause a world of problems for Joe no matter which calendar year he's in.