What if you lived in 2044 in a bombed-out urban metropolis and made your payday by whacking people from the future? And what if your next target turned out to be you, 30 years older and looking a hell of a lot like Bruce Willis?
That would make you Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper, and you'd be royally screwed, because the old you just got the better of the young you by escaping his fate at your hands, or, in this case, your blunderbuss, a sawed-off shotgun that's all the retro rage for future hit men.
Stick with me here, because however long it takes to get your bearings, Looper is worth it. It's a rip-roaring mind-bender that dodges the sci-fi-for-dummies approach (Resident Evil – really?) and hurls us into a world of existential curveballs and long-toss imagination. The exceptionally talented writer-director Rian Johnson is also a merry prankster who likes messing with heads. Just check out what he and Gordon-Levitt did in Brick, a provocative film noir set in high school.
So step at your own risk into the darkly insinuating world of Looper, where time travel has been outlawed but is still used by gangsters eager to execute their enemies and leave no trace. The intended victims, hands bound, faces hooded, appear in a field to be blown away by loopers, low-level assassins from 2044. Working the looper beat has let Gordon-Levitt's Joe indulge his taste for vintage ties, a classic red Miata and a fancy hooker (Piper Perabo). But he's antsy. Joe's boss, Abe (a fiercely funny Jeff Daniels), hints that the Rainmaker, a criminal mastermind from 2074, is closing the loops. That means he's sending loopers back from the future to be killed by their younger selves. A clean slate. No traces. Joe's fellow looper Seth (Paul Dano) has already suffered consequences. And yet Young Joe hesitates at the sight of his older self (Willis) awaiting execution – just enough for Old Joe to run off on his own agenda. The Rainmaker, responsible for killing the woman Old Joe loved, was just a child in 2044. If Old Joe can kill the monster as a kid – he has three possible names – his beloved can be saved.
That leads both Joes to a farmhouse, occupied by single mom Sara (an eruptive, take-charge Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon, amazing). Is it a dead end? There's a firecracker twist of a climax that you won't see coming.
High praise for the knockout teamwork by the two stars. As he did in Moonrise Kingdom, the underrated Willis expertly blends tough and tender. Gordon-Levitt, at the top of his game, has been fitted with prosthetics, including a putty nose, to better resemble the Die Hard icon. But the effort is unnecessary given the emotional bond the actors form, notably in a superb diner scene that tests Wordsworth's line "The child is father of the man." That's what gives this movie distinction. Lacing tremendously exciting action with touching gravity, Looper hits you like a shot in the heart.