Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Looper." (Alan Markfield / TriStar…)
Like many time-travel movies, writer-director Rian Johnson's "Looper" has elements of mind-bending intricacy. The plot, after all, concerns a young hitman (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the 2040s who dispatches targets sent to him from further in the future, until an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) shows up with his own agenda and then promptly escapes. But for all its clockwork precision, "Looper" is at times unapologetically blase about its twisty mechanics, preferring to focus on its characters and their tough choices. That approach appears to have served the film well, as most critics agree that "Looper" is a smart, creative entertainment.
The Times' Kenneth Turan commends Johnson's directing, writing that "'Looper' demonstrates what a sharp and focused imagination can do when no one fences it in." Perhaps the best thing about the film, Turan says, "is the feeling of uncertainty it conveys, the delicious sense that we are in only partially charted territory, that things can and will happen that are deeply unexpected."
Helping to make Johnson look good are cinematographer Steve Yedlin ("excellent") and a game cast. Turan says the film "couldn't hope to succeed without strong acting by all concerned, starting with Gordon-Levitt and a very committed Willis" and extending to Emily Blunt ("potent" as a protective mother) and child actor Pierce Gagnon ("compelling" as a possible big player in the future). But it's Jeff Daniels, "irresistible as an exasperated bad guy," who nearly steals the show.
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The Boston Globe's Ty Burr addresses one of "Looper's" intriguing visual gambits: that Gordon-Levitt wore prosthetics during filming to look more like Willis, his future self. "The imposture is hardly convincing," Burr writes, "but 'Looper' is fast enough, weird enough, and just about smart enough to make you forget about that." The two leading men "are fun to watch, and you can tell they're energized by the challenge of playing the same character at different points on the grid." As for Johnson, Burr says he "has a great movie in him, and he keeps getting closer, but he’s not there yet."
The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern admits to being "blown away" by "Looper," a film he says offers "pounding action, elegant style, steady-state suspense, marvelous acting and … haunting explorations of youth, age and personal destiny." Morgenstern agrees with Turan that Johnson has a knack for visual flair, writing, "It's easy to be beguiled by the production's dazzling surfaces; they're so dazzling that the plot's improbabilities and downright impossibilities are readily forgiven, if not forgotten." That's not to say Johnson is a one-trick pony: "He's as good at directing actors as he is at staging action."
New York magazine's David Edelstein also gives "Looper" a positive review, though he does suggest the film is a bit too clever, writing that Johnson's greatest talent is "making clumsy storytelling look tricky and sophisticated." The film delivers, as long as you don't think too hard about it: "'Looper' is all over the place—a series of barely aligned loop-de-loops—but if high-toned futuristic time-travel pictures with a splash of romance float your boat the way they do mine, you’ll have yourself a time."
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For Slate's Dana Stevens, however, "Looper" doesn't quite complete the circle. She calls the film "a maddening near-miss," arguing that its most promising what-if never pays off: "[The film] posits an impossible but fascinating-to-imagine relationship—a face-to-face encounter between one’s present and future self, in which each self must account for its betrayal of the other—and then throws away nearly all the dramatic potential that relationship offers."