The pairing of writer-director Rian Johnson and leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt seemingly delights in revitalizing old genres. Their first collaboration, 2005’s Brick, transplanted film-noir from the asphalt jungle to a southern California high school. The film’s teenage characters bargained both with the principle and for their lives, all using hardboiled 1940s slang. Now the duo has reunited for Looper, which begins as an old-fashioned gangster movie. With time travel.
Indeed, the screenplay imagines that once time travel is invented in 2074 it is immediately outlawed and falls under the domination of shadowy criminal organizations. The mob harnesses the new technology for one spectacularly uncreative purpose: body disposal. Crime bosses circumvent advanced human tracking systems by zapping their enemies back thirty years, where specialized assassins known as “loopers” wait. The thought of simply transporting victims back to the ice age evidently never occurred to the mafia of the future.
Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, one such looper. He is forced to reevaluate this ingenious, if unnecessarily convoluted, system when his older self (Willis) suddenly materializes in the sights of his futuristic shotgun. Future Joe escapes and his predecessor must race to complete the contract before the mob catches up to him.
The backstory necessary to set-up this pursuit is delivered by Gordon-Levitt in a somewhat clunky voiceover. His matter-of-fact explanations seem more appropriate to a trailer and given Johnson’s impressive ear for dialogue, this exposition could almost certainly have been handled with greater subtlety. The spoon-feeding feels like a concession to filmgoers more accustomed to sequels than original and intelligent science fiction.
Indeed, Johnson presents a distinctive, yet realistic, vision of the near future. In keeping with the film’s time-jumping plot, the production design jumbles past, present, and future. Mob “gat men” fire revolvers from hovering motorcycles, while the time travel apparatus looks like it could be worn by Jacques Cousteau as a diving helmet. Less successful are the special effects applied to bolster Gordon-Levitt’s resemblance to Willis. Although only intermittently distracting, surely both actors portraying the same character requires no more suspension of disbelief than time travel itself.
Look-alikes or not, Gordon Levitt and Willis crackle in their preciously short screen time together. Just as the chase between them is intensifying, they separate and the film settles into a quieter second half. At this point, Johnson shifts his focus from gangsters to another well-worn genre, that of the western. Predicting Willis’ next move, Gordon-Levitt hides out on a farm belonging to a strong-willed woman (Blunt) and her unusual son. The scenario evokes any number of classic westerns, but none more so than 1953’s Hondo, in which John Wayne defends a similarly fatherless farmstead from rampaging Apaches and cavalrymen alike.
It is perhaps only fitting that a time travel adventure should so vividly recall other moments from the cinematic past. Yet Johnson has unquestionably crafted a film that has its own unique appeal. With its genre-bending storytelling, original sci-fi hook, and retro-modern-mash-up aesthetic, Looper is certain to stand the test of time.