Looper (15/R, 118 mins)
Director: Rian Johnson
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Much like Duncan Jones, Rian Johnson has been a director to watch over the last few years. His debut Brick was an ice-cold neo-noir of startling confidence, which he followed with the enjoyably quirky The Brothers Bloom.
For his third film, the daring, inventive Looper, he’s chosen the path of smart, challenging sci-fi, and created something that skirts with greatness before coming up just short.
A Looper is a specialist assassin, working here in the year 2044, when time travel has not yet been invented, but 30 years down the line it will have been. It’s outlawed though, and so only used by criminal organisations who send people they want rid of back in time to be executed.
The target is sent back from the future, where the waiting Looper despatches them, swiftly and mercilessly. They're well paid, on the understanding that one day they’ll have to close the loop and kill their future self. But at least you’ll know you’ve 30 good years left and plenty cash to sweeten the deal.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper, working for crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels). When Joe’s future self is sent back in the shape of Bruce Willis, a moment’s hesitation allows him to escape, sending young Joe after old Joe, and Abe after both of them.
Meanwhile the Rainmaker, the villain of the future, is determined to wipe out all Loopers. The rest of the story is best discovered as you go, but there’s also the matter of Emily Blunt’s farmer and her young son that adds another layer of emotion and complication.
One smart idea follows another. Where something like In Time had the bones of a good concept but couldn’t follow through on it, this, like Source Code, is a film that puts emotional investment and character development ahead of spectacle. When the action does come, it’s bold and crisp, though for budgetary reasons nothing like as groundbreaking as The Matrix or Inception.
Like Minority Report, this is a world that’s futuristic without being too futuristic, and the design is pleasing without a big thing being made of it. Sure the buildings are taller and some vehicles fly, but people still live in ordinary houses and drive around in crummy cars.
Gordon-Levitt is immense. We’ve seen in the last few years that he can act, but here he also proves himself a movie star, with every bit of the charisma and presence of Willis. He’s even been made up to look like the younger version of Willis, all eyebrows, busted nose, and smirk.
There are a couple of issues holding it back from hitting an unstoppable home run however, particularly the familiarity of some of the plot points, while the pace does markedly slacken during the lengthy period spent on the farm.
It must be near impossible to make a time travel movie without in some way referencing the two great touchstones of the genre, Back to the Future and The Terminator, but it’s a shame that Looper has to so blatantly borrow a key element from Cameron.
Viewed more as homage than a steal though, Johnson can be given the benefit of the doubt on that one, because in every other regard he has created something really rather special.