Welcome to 2044, Kansas. Time travel hasn't been invented yet, but in thirty years it will be. And when it is, it's immediately outlawed, with criminal organizations using it for their own ends -- namely, to dispose of bodies. In the future, thanks to the advances in tracking people, it becomes more difficult to make someone disappear. And thus there are Loopers. Sent assignments from the future, they dispatch them in the present, get rid of the bodies, thus eliminating them in the future and get paid a modest sum for their efforts. It's not the most honorable job, but considering how bad the economy has become, it's something.
Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He's a Looper and a junkie, but not without ambition. He's shoring up half his pay and learning French, with plans to move to France. He's got his eye on a hooker with a heart of gold (Piper Perabo), and he's good at his job, earning the compassionate attention of his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), who has traveled from 2074 to manage the Loopers for the crime syndicate. But Joe's job is a gig that with a finite timeframe. Eventually, his services will no longer be required and crime syndicate will "close the loop," sending his future self back (along with a hefty retirement payday) to be killed, thus cleaning any and all ties of their work together. But when Joe's older self (Bruce Willis) shows up, things don't go as planned and they both have to go on the run.
To start with, Johnson gives himself a helluva narrative mountain to climb, and much of the first chunk of the film is spent establishing the rules and boundaries of the world in which "Looper" takes place. And while it sometimes teeters on being overly exposition heavy, Johnson does himself a couple of favors that keeps things moving and highly engaging. The first is giving the film a bit of a noir touch, provided by a sardonic voiceover by Joe who acts as a guide of sorts in the opening stages of the movie. The second is populating the edges with strong actors in smaller, but key roles with Paul Dano, Noah Segan and Garret Dilahunt giving weight, depth and dimension to seemingly inconsequential characters. (And no, we didn't forget Emily Blunt, but we can't really talk about her co-starring role without massive spoilers but needless to say, she's solid).
And of course, he gets two great turns out of his leads. Gordon-Levitt has never quite played a character like this, one of such dubious or selfish motivations who generally puts his own self-interests first. A junkie and second-rate gangster, he's not immediately the most likeable character. But that he manages to navigate the moral and emotional complexities of his character, particularly under some impressive prosthetics, is a true treat to watch. We'll have seen him a lot on the big screen by the end of 2012 ("Premium Rush," "The Dark Knight Rises" and the upcoming "Lincoln") but this is the performance that will likely stand out from the others. As for Willis, we haven't really seen him in a movie of this quality in a long time (the atypical "Moonrise Kingdom" aside). "Looper" serves as a reminder of just how terrific Willis can be with material that goes the extra mile.
But perhaps the most thrilling thing about "Looper" is watching Johnson really grow leaps and bounds as a filmmaker. "Brick" and "The Brothers Bloom" showed that Johnson has a smart, sharp eye, but never have his visuals, concept and narrative come together so harmoniously as they do here. He has always been (self)conscious about composition, sometimes to a distracting degree (particulary with 'Bloom'), but here he is more judicious about simply creating interesting frames. And that selective approach means that when he does decide to get a bit flashy, the impact is tremendous -- there is one sequence in particular that created audible gasps in the audience we were with.
But that's not to say the film isn't without its issues. After a pretty gangbusters first act, the pacing and flow stumble slightly in the middle as Johnson has to rearrange his puzzle pieces to set up the finale. And the conclusion -- which will likely become a big talking point -- is preceded by a big set piece that sort of works within the context of the characters and world, but feels ripped from a lesser, more derivative blockbuster flick. Tonally, "Looper" is a bit cold and distant as well, with a later shift towards bigger themes that never quite makes up for that gap.
Brainy and entertaining, there is simply nothing like "Looper" you've seen at the multiplex in quite some time and it's one you'll want to loop back see again after you leave the theater. [B+]