Let’s begin this review brutally. As a member of one particular category of film, Looper finishes last. That category is the Bruce-Willis-as-a-tragic-time-travelling-tough-guy category, which contains precisely two films, this and Terry Gilliam’s majestic 12 Monkeys. And with all respect to Looper’s writer-director Rian Johnson, his new movie isn’t as good as 12 Monkeys. But then, what is?
On its own terms, though, Looper is pretty good and as a basic premise it has a killer idea. The year is 2044, when the mob employs a caste of hitmen known as Loopers to dispose of its rivals. The twist is that the mob is operating another 30 years in the future, in 2074, when time travel has been invented – and by making (illegal) use of time-travel technology, the mob can send its victims back to 2044 to be executed by the Loopers, thereby erasing them from 2074 and leaving not a single incriminating trace of them.
To keep a rein on the Loopers, 30 years in its own past, the mob has also sent back in time a crime-boss called Abe (Jeff Daniels). Dividing his time between making wry comments that draw on his knowledge of things to come – “Why the f*** France?” he demands when he finds out his prize Looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has been learning French; “I’m from the future. Go to China.” – and smashing people’s hands to a pulp with a hammer, Abe manages to be both wise and psychotic and he sports a grizzled beard that makes him look like Kris Kristofferson gone to the Dark Side. I’ve mainly seen Daniels in amiable-goofball roles and I have to say he is something of a revelation here.
The only loose ends in the mob’s killing operations are the Loopers themselves, who’ll still be around in 2074, 30 years older and dangerously knowledgeable about what’s been going on. So the mob sends them back in time too, to be executed by their younger selves. Thus, each Looper in 2044 faces a day when his older self will pop out of the time continuum – at which point he is expected to kill him (or himself), take the large sum of money that’s strapped to his (own) body, consider his contract ended and go off and enjoy life for the next 30 years until time is called, so to speak. The repercussions are dire for any Looper who fails to ‘close the loop’, as it’s described, and lets his old self run free in 2044. This is graphically illustrated early on in the film when Abe and his cohorts slowly torture a Looper who didn’t have the courage to close his loop – the same mutilations gradually and horribly appearing on the body of his 30-year-older fugitive self.
Paid generously for his work, Gordon-Levitt’s Joe wallows in a hedonistic mire of drugs, clubs, fast cars and gorgeous women. That is, until the inevitable moment comes when his older version materialises out of thin air, for execution. Gordon-Levitt flubs the execution, not because he’s weak-willed but because his older self, played by Bruce Willis, is wilier and tougher than he is, manages to overpower him and escapes. He then finds himself in an awkward situation. He has to locate Bruce-on-the-loose and complete the job before Abe and the other Loopers get their hands on both of them.
Willis, meanwhile, is on a mission. He’s witnessed the death of a loved one in 2074 and is determined to prevent that happening by carrying out some serious alterations to the time-stream in 2044. Willis’s time-meddling involves finding a woman called Sara (Emily Blunt) and her mysterious young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), although Gordon-Levitt gets to them first. Realising that Willis has murder on his mind, he becomes their reluctant protector – although that reluctance fades as he befriends little Cid and begins to fall for Sara.
The film isn’t perfect. There’s a plot twist with a secondary character that also involves a massive coincidence and this twist could’ve been excised from the script for the sake of greater believability. Also, from what we see of 2074 – some bleak news footage watched by Willis on TV just before the villains arrive and send him on a one-way trip back in time – society then looks so apocalyptically messy that we wonder why the mob needs to be neat and tidy about disposing of its enemies.
Looper side-steps too that old time-travel paradox: “What’d happen if you travelled back in time to before you were born and shot your father? So that you wouldn’t be born, wouldn’t travel back in time and wouldn’t shoot your father?” Though to be fair, a lot of other time-travel movies have ducked the same issue, including the first three in the Terminator series starring Willis’s old action-movie mate, Ah-nuld. And there’s a sequence late in the film where events become uncomfortably Terminator-like. It ties up a major plot-strand, admittedly, but I wish Rian Johnson had tied it up with more ingenuity than by simply relying on a lot of heavy-duty gunfire.
Where Looper really works, though, is its treatment of the relationship between Gordon-Levitt and Willis – or the lack of one. The obvious thing would’ve been to turn it into a high-concept buddy movie where the two characters, younger and older versions of the same man, are thrown together, bicker, form a grudging partnership, win each other’s respect and finally bond in a weird son-father way. (The tagline could’ve been: He took self-help to a new level!) However, Johnson keeps the interplay between them to a minimum and keeps them as adversaries. For most of the film, in fact, Gordon-Levitt’s attitude towards his older self resembles that of a boozy, chain-smoking, pill-popping teenager warned that he’s wrecking his health later on in life. Just as the teenager doesn’t care, because he’d rather be dead than be middle-aged, Gordon-Levitt has no sympathy with Willis and his traumas in 2074 – he just wants to take the big pay-off and enjoy the next 30 years of his life. And though we feel sorry for Willis and understand why he regards Gordon-Levitt as an immature prat, when we see what crimes he’s prepared to commit to change the future, we end up rooting for Gordon-Levitt to stop him.
Both actors do well in their roles, or their role – Gordon-Levitt had prosthetic make-up added to make him more Willis-like – even if you never quite succumb to the illusion that you’re watching one person rather than two. (At one point Johnson provides a montage of the 30 years between 2044 and 2074, where an older Gordon-Levitt gives way to a younger Willis. Was it my imagination, or in my first glimpse of Willis here did I see him sporting a mad truncated hairstyle exactly like the one Gary Oldman had in another Willis sci-fi epic, The Fifth Element?)
Looper is, for the most part, a movie that’ll restore a little of your faith in Hollywood. Like Duncan Jones’ 2011 sci-fi actioner Source Code, it manages to be both mind-bending and entertaining and it doesn’t feel the need to opt for the brainless spectacle of blockbusting big-budget garbage like the Transformers movies. It’s definitely a case of mind over matter – and imagination over money.