Silver Screen: Looper ****
Rian Johnson's slick genre-mashup Looper has the veneer of novelty rather than actual novelty. It's pastiche, and the influences are both abundant and apparent: the time-traveling assassins of Terminator, the literalized identity crisis of self versus self echoing Philip K. Dick, the noir-tinged gangster cool of antihero Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It's no accident that it's easy to imagine Joe sitting in a bar with Jean-Paul Belmondo's silent, inscrutable killer from Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless; a minor character in Looper even chides Joe early on for his throwback-gangster attire: You're just imitating movies that imitate other movies. Johnson is very aware of his debts and appropriations, but he's thoroughly in control of them, and it makes Looper the best kind of escapist entertainment. It's smart, artful pop synthesis-- maybe not too deep, but awfully shiny and fun to look at.
Gordon-Levitt's Joe is a new kind of hitman, a looper, a hired gun circa 2044. Thirty years hence, time travel will be invented and used by the mob. The latest technology makes it difficult to get away with murder, so they send their victims back to 2044 where Joe executes them and disappears their corpses into the past.
There's a catch: The time-travel scheme is so sensitive, if a looper lives long enough to see the era of time travel, he knows too much, and therefore must be killed. The final job any looper works is disposing of his own older self. That's known as closing your loop.
Joe sees what kind of trouble failing to close your own loop brings. His best friend (Paul Dano) blows his final assignment and brings down the wrath of Joe's mentor, mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels). The gang's retribution is a bit of wonderfully realized viciousness that makes for the movie's best scene. It's a moment of Cronenbergian horror that perfectly represents the rest of the film: If you think too hard about it, it doesn't make literal sense, but if you accept the time-travel gimmick at face value you'll have a hell of at time. Other inevitable questions about the premise include the most obvious: Why not just have loopers close loops other than their own, so nobody will be faced with the existential dilemma of shooting their future selves? But what did we just say about too much thinking?
It's only a matter of time before Joe's future self (Bruce Willis), wiser, balder, and grimly determined, is sent back. But Future Joe is not only too crafty for his contemporary killers, he's got a leg up on his older self as well. He escapes to enact his revenge plot on the man who will rule the criminal underworld three decades later, a mysterious and seemingly all-powerful ruler known only as the Rainmaker. Future Joe has narrowed the identity of the Rainmaker down to one of three children, and he's willing to murder them all to make sure he stops the Rainmaker before he gains power. Joe of 2044 doesn't care about the problems he'll possibly face in thirty years-- he's more concerned with the immediate consequences he'll face unless he can close his loop.
The conflicts in Looper are complex and overlapping, more complicated than the otherwise fairly straightforward time-travel storyline. Looper's plot mechanics aren't as convoluted as the mind-bending (and plausibility-stretching) twists in Source Code, another high-concept contemporary riff on a staple sci-fi plot. Looper's ambiguity is in the character motivations, all of which are sympathetic. Future Joe wants to prevent a slew of murders in the future, including that of his own wife; the mob has to bump off Future Joe not only to keep their operation afloat but to prevent any disturbances in the timeline; and 2044 Joe wants only to stay alive, at least until his amorality is challenged by a dedicated single mother (Emily Blunt) who may or may not be raising the future Rainmaker.
The oddest element of the film is the addition of an entirely separate sci-fi plot gimmick. With no real explanation, ten percent of the human population in the future has developed mild telekinetic powers. The low-level ability to manipulate objects with the mind is mostly used for minor party tricks. It's brought up once early on in Looper, in the initial rush of exposition where it seems especially baffling and also superfluous. It's not mentioned again for another hour, but any intrepid moviegoers and Chekhov fans know that the telekinesis established in the first act must go off in the third, so to speak.
It's a needless convolution the movie could absolutely do without, and it's also a setup for the movie's disappointing climax. For the first hour and a half Looper borrows liberally from other movies but defies classification. Then all the odd angles and ambiguities are flattened for a superhero-movie finish that's nicely rendered but far too familiar. It's not so different from the finale of last year's Chronicle, not because Johnson is aping Josh Trank, but because Trank and Johnson have both seen Akira.
Looper is at its sharpest when the gimmicks and effects augment a character-driven gangster story. It's a shame to have special effects and superpowered histrionics dominate the final act of what is otherwise one of the year's most sly, entertaining movies.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.