Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of the most charismatic young actors in the movies: having begun his career some fifteen years ago as a shaggy-haired kid on TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, he’s matured into a sensitive and intelligently sexy leading man. In the ultra-hip opening scenes of Rian Johnson’s Looper, as he saunters through a dystopian city of the future, studying French in his spare time, he almost recalls Belmondo. Gordon-Levitt inspires the same cool frisson that Belmondo did, and he has the same mixture of hardness and softness. Now in his late twenties, Gordon-Levitt has adopted a man’s swagger but still looks boyish. What’s attractive about him is that we’re able to see the delicate underside of his own tough-guy act.
Regrettably, in Looper it seems as if his beautifully soft face has been made up to look like that of Bruce Willis, who plays the older version of his character, a paid assassin named Joe. One of the strange things about Looper is seeing Gordon-Levitt and Willis supposedly playing the same person: Willis, the literal embodiment of the hardened action hero, feels completely at odds with Gordon-Levitt’s slim, pensive hipster persona. It’s like watching John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, representatives of two utterly opposed acting styles, on-screen together in Red River; Willis and Gordon-Levitt represent a generation’s-worth of difference in screen masculinity. Looper—the conceit of which involves time travel—is itself an odd attempt to fit together a mind-bending conceptual puzzle-thriller with an old-school ’80s shoot-’em-up.
If the pieces never really fit together, it’s still notably more stylish, less leaden and roughly an hour shorter than most other recent action thrillers. For the first half of its 90-ish minutes, it takes unabashed pleasure in mounting a slick little plot about Joe being commissioned to kill his future self. When Younger Joe and Older Joe meet, they decide to alter their fate in various ways, in part by setting out to find and destroy the child who will grow up to become the crime lord responsible for destroying their future.
Sci-fi wonks across the blogosphere have already begun to dismantle the film’s logic in order to point out all of the ways in which its laws of time-travel fail to hold together. To be fair, Johnson himself seems well-aware that films about time-travel (including his own) are never logistically water-tight, and that shouldn’t get in the way of our having a good time with them. In Looper, the time-travel gimmick simply exists to serve the interests of Johnson’s characters and a mostly thrilling plot. It’s a shame, then, to see the third act of that plot drown in its own sentimentality, as the intoxicating rush of the first half gives way to a set of dreary object lessons in responsibility, self-sacrifice, and the redemptive power of A Mother’s Love (turns out the course of the future hinges on good parenting—what a surprise). It’s a lot of fun until Johnson’s moralizing throws a wet blanket on the whole thing.