Rian Johnson first made a mark with his remarkable 2005 debut “Brick,” a dark high school fantasy that toyed with genre and fused the sensibilities of “Donnie Darko” with Raymond Chandler. His less successful followup, the playful caper flick “The Brothers Bloom,” contained a similarly tricky narrative that took multiple unexpected turns. As Johnson demonstrated a clear penchant for the interplay between reality and fantasy, it makes sense that he would eventually enter the science-fiction realm.
“Looper,” a rollicking dystopian action-adventure yarn about time travel, is a reasonable broadening of the filmmaker’s scope with enough potential to make its flaws stand out. The first hour displays a brilliant elaboration on the noir antics demonstrated in “Brick,” but the movie’s later scenes stumble in a mass of half-formed ideas. Nevertheless, craftsmanship holds “Looper” together during its concluding moments so that the skill behind the camera remains in focus, resulting in an experience nearly as fragmented as the time-traveling antics at its center.
Reteaming with “Brick” star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Johnson has written the typically ebullient actor a dreary role with plenty of noir-inflected dialogue. Set in 2044, the story casts Gordon-Levitt as clandestine hitman Joe, part of a secretive group hired by employers from a future 30 years away, where time travel has been invented. With a workmanlike sense of calm, Joe routinely heads to a desolate area where veiled targets from the future abruptly appear on schedule. The job is chillingly simple: He pulls the trigger, collects his loot and calls it a day.
Having established his routine in a moody first-person voiceover, Joe tacks on the catch: At a certain point, the organization that hires loopers fires them by sending back their futures selves so that the younger killers can wipe them out. The imminent deadline means that most loopers have made peace with their limited time. “This job doesn’t attract forward-thinking people,” Joe deadpans, although he has enough cunning to plot a means of capitalizing on his limited time: Studying up on his French, Joe hopes to cash out spend his later years exploring Europe.
A soulful character looking to get out, Joe faces a classic struggle that’s not nearly as impressive as the world Johnson constructs to surround his creation. With small touches — a flying car here, a nifty technical device there — “Looper” makes its dark near future into a palpable reality replete with a struggling impoverished class that makes the latest recession look like downright pedestrian.
Joe isn’t invulnerable to the hard times: Addicted to a nameless futuristic narcotic that takes the form of eyedrops, he wanders through the weary cycle of his profession in a daze. Johnson also crafts a series of colorful coworkers, including Paul Dano in a fleeting but enjoyably high energy turn and a looper boss played by Jeff Daniels. Characteristically frumpy, Daniels’ performance is an unconventional choice for a menacing bad guy, but he’s competent enough until a point where the movie basically forgets about him.
Naturally, the self-extermination responsibility that all loopers eventually face takes center stage, and the movie launches into its brisk plot. When Dano’s character allows his older self to escape, the men learn that a murky new future boss named The Rainmaker has issued a mandate to execute all existing loopers. Unfazed, Joe keeps his head down until his own future self (Bruce Willis) shows up and knocks the younger Joe unconscious before he can pull the trigger.
A clever twist on the chase movie ensues with multiple layers of narrative unfolding at once: A swift montage explores Joe’s life over the course of a three-decade period, with an artful, wordless explanation for his decision to rebel against the contract. Having fallen for the woman of his dreams, Joe decides the only way to keep his life with her is to travel back to 2044 and kill The Rainmaker in his youth. Meanwhile, the younger Joe still just wants to do his job. Establishing dueling stakes cleverly arranged to keep our sympathies at bay, “Looper” launches into its final act.
Up to this point, the movie remains thoroughly engrossing for the way it demonstrates unbridled enthusiasm for its unique takes on various action-adventure formulas. Johnson’s acrobatic camerawork swirls about his characters with a vibrant pulse that sets his imagery apart from the countless other near-future noirs unleashed since “Blade Runner.” An early chase scene between the two Joes, replayed from their varying points of view, sets the bar high early on; it’s matched later by a tense showdown between the two men in a coffee shop, where both vow to stick to their respective missions. Johnson’s construction of ambiguous heroes and the implied idea of a man pitted against his former self maintains the thematic implications of the scenario with ease.
Even then, however, indications of the troublesome later scenes begin to emerge. Willis’ low-key performance is often devoid of any expression whatsoever, giving the distinct impression of a tired actor phoning it in. Gordon-Levitt is convincing enough, but the decision to slather his face with makeup so that he looks more like the famous actor cast to play him in the future stands out as the one of many early distractions. Another is a subplot involving the development of telekinesis by countless future dwellers, a separate sci-fi conceit from the time travel factor and one that never quite synchs with the rest of the plot (even the name, the “TK mutation,” underscores the fill-in-the-blank quality of the idea).
Such qualms can be forgiven, however; the major issues with the final scenes cannot. Pursued by the same authorities intent on eliminating his future self, Joe flees to cornfields, where he finds a young woman (Emily Blunt) and her alleged child, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), possibly an early version of the proverbial Rainmaker. Joe knows that older Joe will eventually come to this countryside setting, so he decides to wait it out. At that point, “Looper” halts, arriving a decidedly less interesting place devoid of the vivacious storytelling that precedes it. A creepy child seemingly stolen from the plot of “Bad Seed,” Cid is an archetype that belongs to a different kind of movie, so his borrowed status stands out — as does the movie’s brash, thundering finale, where a barrage of violent showdowns and a half-baked twist stand in stark contrast to the brainier events that take place early on.
Nevertheless, it would be a disservice to discount the spectacular vision that keeps “Looper” in motion. Steve Yedlin’s cinematography and Johnson’s icy screenplay demonstrate a fierce commitment to the prospects of intelligent science-fiction cinema, a feat largely ignored by contemporary American filmmakers. There’s a adrenaline rush even in the problematic finish, an eagerness that drives the filmmaking so that “Looper” is thrilling to watch even when it falls apart.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony will release “Looper” on September 28, having capitalized on buzz the film will undoubtedly receive as the opening night selection for the Toronto International Film Festival. Genre fans are likely to embrace the dystopic setting and the movie’s attitude, so it stands a good chance at performing decently in wide release.