Review: 'Looper' Is the Sci-Fi Action-Adventure Romance Thriller of the Year

Looper

There was a period during the mid-to-late '90s when it seemed like Bruce Willis was through with action movies -- and at the time, it seemed like that might not be such a bad thing.

Really, the genre itself seemed to have run out of new or exciting things to say -- and within the ludicrous highs and lows Willis reached with post-Die Hard efforts like Die Hard with a Vengeance and Striking Distance, there were times when he seemed palpably bored with action hero status. Even as his wisecracking tough guy persona regained some of its luster with films like RED and Live Free or Die Hard, there was a sense of treading water -- of a guy living up (or down) to his audience's, and his industry's, expectations.

Turns out all Willis needed was the right script. Looper not only lets Willis kick ass more satisfyingly than he has in decades, it packs in a number of thrilling, brainy twists -- and leaves room for a smart, legitimately tearjerking final act. Equal parts action, revisionist sci-fi, and tender drama, it provides some of the most satisfying popcorn pleasures of the year -- and leaves out most of the empty calories we've been trained to expect from our mainstream shoot-'em-up entertainment.

The plot, in loose, spoiler-free terms: Looper opens in 2044, with a few moments of noir-worthy narration from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who explains that in 2074, time travel was invented, quickly outlawed, and co-opted by criminal syndicates who hire hitmen from the past -- like him -- to dispose of bodies they send back in time.

The hitmen ("loopers," natch) are well-compensated for their efforts, but there's a sizable catch: When they've outlived their usefulness to the syndicate, they end up "closing the loop" by killing their own future selves -- and that, in a nutshell, is how Willis and Gordon-Levitt ended up playing different versions of the same character in the same movie.

Now that we've given Willis his due, it bears mentioning that in terms of screen time and impressive prosthetic-assisted acting, Looper really belongs to Gordon-Levitt -- he doesn't really look like Willis, even with the benefit of whatever they did to his face to alter his appearance, but he clearly watched a lot of footage from Willis' films, because he's got his older counterpart's physical, facial, and vocal inflections down pat.

Gordon-Levitt's performance is the niftiest trick in a movie full of them -- including a vision of the future that, for once, manages to tread the line between Jetsons-type wish fulfillment and Blade Runner dystopia. Looper throws a ton of details at you right off the bat: Tent cities, frontier justice, floating vehicles, and mutants rub shoulders with vinyl-hoarding hitmen who earn their pay in gold and silver bricks.

It's a mixture of sci-fi and lo-fi -- kind of like today, in other words. And just like today, many of Looper's characters tend to live for the now -- to chase easy, incidental pleasures and bargain away their futures because the alternative is too uncomfortable to contemplate. On one level, this is what the movie's really about, underneath all the time travel and action set pieces -- the notion that all your foolish choices eventually catch up with you in the end; that most of our deepest regrets stem from not listening to our truest selves.

On another level, though, it's about the murky line between memory and reality, and about how, after a traumatic event, we tend to cling to our pain because it's all we have left of the past. At one point, a character makes a reference to "men figuring out what they would do to hang on to what's theirs," and that's a question that haunts Willis' character. The answers may shock some viewers, but Johnson makes them count in a way that most action movies wouldn't have the courage to attempt.

Speaking of Johnson, it's worth pausing to say a few words about the grace he displays here; not only does he load Looper with some of the most cleanly staged action sequences mainstream audiences have had the privilege of seeing in this handicam age, but he also exerts control with a ton of smart -- and often quite beautiful -- cinematography. There are a couple of missteps, including a too-obvious shot making it clear that Gordon-Levitt has been stockpiling blood money and a love scene that comes out of left field, but they're minor; for the vast majority of its running time, this is a movie that wraps you up and takes you away.

Johnson's remarkable control extends to the movie's final act, which whips all of Looper's strands together into a burst of energy and emotion that includes some balls-to-the-wall action (in one sequence, Willis goes on a death march that's like a compilation of every '80s action movie cliche this film subverts) but doesn't forget to leave room for heart. Too many filmmakers -- even the great ones -- can't figure out how to exit the premises without stumbling, but here, Johnson ends with a lovely final flourish that bows to the power of love while reminding us that true change requires sacrifice. Only Johnson's third film, Looper's something like a modern masterpiece, and he'll be hard-pressed to follow it up -- but it should be our pleasure to watch him try.

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About Jeff Giles

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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