A good friend, on seeing "Looper," accused it not being half as clever as it thought it was. That particular complaint is slippery, notoriously hard to quantify, and one that I've beeen guilty of making in the past. What I think it means, in this context, is that a thing is so concerned with impressing the audience on the basis of its construction--how complicated the puzzle box is--that this complexity comes at the expense of what's actually inside the box.
This complaint is, I think a fair one to a certain extent for Johnson's debut "Brick," and definitely applicable to the hard-to-sit-through grifter comedy "The Brothers Bloom," but it's so far off the mark when it comes to "Looper." The director's foray into sci-fi feels lived-in, real, and populated with characters this time around who aren't just slaves to the plot or genre. Plus, it happens to be a smart and efficient sci-fi movie to boot, giving us one of the strongest genre films of 2012.
In the middle of the 21st century, low-level gunmen wander out to isolated locations and shoot down the bound, hooded figures who appear kneeling in front of them. Their victims: criminals from 30 years or farther into the future where time travel has been invented, outlawed, and put into use by the criminal syndicates to dispose of people they don't want living any longer. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of these assassins, collecting his bars of silver with a contract that will someday call for him to be sent back down the line to be killed by his his younger self in order to clean up any evidence. In the present, the syndicate doesn't look too kindly on Loopers who allow their future selves to get away, which is why Joe panicks when his future self (Bruce Willis) makes a run for it with a plan to save the elder man's future.
Willis and Gordon-Levitt make a fine pair, the older man scrambling to protect a hard-worn future by taking down a notorious kingpin in the present while Joe the younger simply wants to keep keep his haul of silver intact and his head attached to his shoulders. The two men can't understand how the other would risk everything--risk their respective futures (younger Joe can't see how he should care about a future, a wife, and life he doesn't know anything about), as Johnson constructs some compelling symmetry throughout.
Johnson's future is our latest, blown-out, near apocalypse, the have's getting by on doing dirt, and the have-not's surviving on the bloody scraps. It's an economic apocalypse, something the terrible "In Time" tried in its own heavy handed way to convey without half of the convincing despair of "Looper." The styles, fashion, and vernacular of Joe and his buddies is self-consciously late-20th century in a way that doesn't go in for a ridiculous near-future look while at the same time getting at the truth of crime and fashion (the former is often nostalgic for patterns in the latter).
This is leaving out a detour to a farm run by Sara (Emily Blunt) and the legions of "Gatmen" (pistol-toting enforcers for the syndicate), and a weary, funny performance by Jeff Daniels, because I want you to discover these pieces of "Looper" for yourself. I will say that the puzzle, as it were, it's so complex as to be distracting--the time travel conceit and how it breaks/amkes continuity is used more than anything to explore two versions of the same man across time, and Johnson pointedly doesn't allow the plot or characters to get bogged down in the mechanics of the thing.
I'm still mulling over it's ending, though--would that character have made that decision given the options available and everything we knew about them? I'm not entirely convinced, but I'll definitely be revisiting "Looper" to see how it affects me the next time around.
Special features and presentation
In addition to being joined by stars Gordon-Levitt and Blunt on the disc's commentary, Johnson offers commentary on 22 deleted scenes (36:50, HD) with the help of actor Noah Sagan (Kid Blue). "The Future From the Beginning" (07:52, HD) is a brief making-of doc where the cast and crew talk about the origins of "Looper," from its initial concept as a short to production. In "The Science of Time Travel," (08:29, HD), Johnson gets philosophical about the possibility of going through time with the help of "How to Build a Time Machine" author Brian Clegg, while "Scoring Looper" is a multi-part look at the movie's score (16:18) with composer Nathan Johnson. Finally, the disc includes the animated trailer for the film (bot noticeably, no theatrical trailer for the film).
"Looper" is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.