When you’re still coasting off the summer buzz and want to rev up for the engaging conversations you’ll inevitably have about the Oscar season’s prestige pics, nothing gets the mental ball rolling like a good time-travel movie. Whether it’s a diagram-demanding head-spinner like “Primer” or a breezier “Back to the Future,” there’s always something about connecting the dots that makes even the “Hot Tub Time Machines” of the bunch a jolting splash of cold water. “Looper,” the new movie from writer-director Rian Johnson, combines the genre’s intellectual demands with a chase film’s pace better than anything since “Terminator,” and it is definitely one of the fall season’s must-sees.
“Looper” takes the Bruce Willis of “12 Monkeys” and the Joseph Gordon-Levitt of “Inception” and throws them into an unpredictable Jägerbomb of a premise. In the year 2044, time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but criminal organizations in 2074 use the technology to send their victims back in time to get whacked by special hitmen called “loopers.” The catch to being a looper is that, when your contract is terminated and you get handsomely paid off, you have to kill your future self to tie up the loose ends. Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper who makes the mistake of letting his future self (Bruce Willis) run, causing a big mess involving a telekinetic future crimelord known as “The Rainmaker.” This all might seem too complicated, but even if your eyes glaze over during the exposition dumps, it’s pretty easy to get back on track.
As if we wouldn’t buy that the two leads are the same person, the filmmakers waste a lot of money giving JGL prosthetic versions of Willis’s distinctive nose, mouth, and brow. It’s pretty unnerving at first, but compared to Josh Brolin’s Tommy Lee Jones in this summer’s “Men In Black 3,” Gordon-Levitt does a much better job of uncannily resembling his mark while delivering an actual first-class performance, not an impersonation. If Gordon-Levitt’s A-list brand becomes smart science-fiction, I will be happy. Willis himself gets top billing, and his character’s combination of sympathetic avenger and unstoppable villain gives him a rare opportunity to unleash the remnants of his star power. Emily Blunt plays a farmer, and that’s all I’ll say about that. Paul Dano and Jeff Bridges provide future-mafia comic relief.
Certified clever-person Rian Johnson has proven that he can do more than disorientingly self-referential bluster. I’m one of the few people who thought his 2005 debut “Brick” (a neo-noir set in a high school also starring Gordon-Levitt) was way too up its ass to be entertaining, but “Looper” transcends its self-aware Godard-ian trickery with a straightforward, character-driven story that you haven’t seen before. A lesser movie would keep the tension around Future Joe’s enigmatic background and motivations, but Johnson tells you everything you need to know about Willis’s tormented soul in a two-minute montage before moving on to bigger and better things. Its exciting future world— Future drugs! Future haircuts! Future motorcycles!—gives way to a much more restrained setting. And instead of falling back on genre cliches-like red herrings and quantum paradoxes, “Looper” slowly turns into a small scale drama about regret and selflessness.
But don’t let that dissuade you: the most impressive part of “Looper” is how it keeps its breakneck pace and rules intact even when it goes somewhere you don’t expect. It makes the great decision early on to be cavalier about rejecting time travel clichés while staying true to its premise in all the right ways. It’s the rare time-travel flick with balls and heart to match its brains. Make it the next movie you see.