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Review: 'Looper' is worth coming back around for another look

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2012 - “Looper” looks to be one of the most interesting movies of the year, and writer-director Rian Johnson is probably about to become a major director. The cast is better than anybody could reasonably expect. The script is original, challenging, but still clear enough. And what might have been just another techno-future mind-twister shows some actual ethical depth.

Let’s start with the unusually good cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, having a break-out year, stars as Joe, a hit-man (the eponymous “looper”) for the Mob. His futuristic job is to assassinate people in a particularly effective way: Victims are “looped” back from the future to be killed in the past, so making them disappear is surprisingly quick and easy. But when Joe is faced with having to kill his own older self, played by Bruce Willis, the movie begins to take weird turns.

While young Joe stalks old Joe, both are being chased by a meathead named Kid Blue, played by Noah Segan, who is just plain fun to watch. The relentless and joyless men-in-black armies that have become so boring and familiar from conspiracy movies are here, too, but mostly for floor-filler, led by Jeff Daniels in a juicy role as the boss man, but the movie isn’t about him either. Enter now, Emily Blunt as Sara, a spunky farm-mom, and her cute little boy, Cid, played by Pierce Gagnon. (If you’ve seen the trailer for this movie, you have seen nothing, not one hint, about this little boy, so be prepared for surprises.) We’re now watching nearly three stories.

Exactly what kind of movie is “Looper”? Several kinds.

Johnson likes to cut across genres deliberately. Science fiction? Yes, but it’s not “about” future science — that’s actually just the background. The script has also been called film noir and neo-noir, but it’s not quite (bent hero? yes. femme fatale? no). Of course, you can quickly see connections to other time-bender movies, including “Source Code” and the “Terminator” series, but this movie goes beyond them to a surprising level, because actual questions of ethics enter the story.

Taking the ethical dilemmas into consideration, I’d consider calling the movie a serious drama, even a dark one, but then all the fanboys and just-plain-kids and a good many adults would start to leave the room, and I’m pretty sure they will all like this movie, which is a puzzler like “Inception” but with more honest emotional problems.

The movie also takes a few well-aimed shots at some of us movie-lovers. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but whenever Die-Hard heroes and Terminator-types have to kill and maim people by the dozen — for the good of us all, of course — we pretty much do treat them as actual heroes and not as homicidal creeps. Think back to “Terminator 2” when young John Connor tells the Terminator sidekick that he can’t just kill people, and so the Terminator then shoots out the kneecaps of about 50 policeman and says, “They’ll live.” Remember? I do. The audience laughs.

So, yeah, we sorta side with the cool killers pretty quickly, wouldn’t you agree? Well, if so, this new movie has some questions for you — and that’s why “Looper” isn’t about time-travel, at all. This movie is about the astounding things people will do to and for each other, out of pure love, only more so when they happen to have time-travel and telekinesis available.

Johnson first got noticed with “Brick” (2006), a small indie movie that really was full-on film noir, but set in a California high school. A brilliant concept. At the time Johnson claimed that the movie wasn’t what high school was actually like, but what high school really felt like. Joseph Gordon-Levitt also starred in that one, and looked utterly different from the kid you still see him playing on “3rd Rock from the Sun” on television. Johnson was already working on the time-travel idea before “Brick” was released. Next came the quirky “Brothers Bloom” and since then he’s also directed a few TV episodes of “Breaking Bad.”

“Looper” is probably going to super-charge Johnson’s so-far quiet career. Film-festival types who saw an early version have been buzzing and anticipating the final cut for a year. “Looper” was also the opening movie of the Toronto Film Festival this week, where it was well received. Don’t be surprised if the movie grabs Oscar nominations, particularly for the screenplay.

Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, has been building a notable career of his own. Besides his solid work in “Looper,” this year he has been in “The Dark Knight Rises” (the next Robin?) and “Premium Rush,” an unusual thriller built around a Manhattan bike messenger. He also plays Lincoln’s son in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “Lincoln,” which promises to be yet another offbeat blockbuster.

Having acted in a dozen movies in the past three years, including “(500) Days of Summer” in 2009, “Inception” in 2010 and “50/50” in 2011, Gordon-Levitt, the 31-year-old veteran, is becoming a one-man media band, playing music off- and online, blogging, producing and directing short films, hosting SNL and, of course, appearing on the cover of “GQ.” He has just finished shooting his first feature-length film, “Don Jon’s Addiction,” expected to release in 2013, which he wrote and directed, starring himself as a man addicted to porn. That movie co-stars Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore — and it’s about pornography — so that should get some notice.

If you just want to see how Gordon-Levitt’s cute-factor can work in the internet age, go to his little YouTube duet with his real-life friend, Zooey Deschanel, and see how home video looks when made by pros. If he want to see how well the young man can act, go home and watch “Brick” (if you haven’t already seen it), then go see “Looper” at a theater and watch how he completely disappears into two entirely different roles.