On first glance, it was hard to know what to make of Looper. Despite a past string of action successes, Bruce Willis hasn’t exactly been on fire lately in the genre from Cop Out to Surrogates to a few straight to DVD messes, one of which involved 50 Cent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is of course a recent golden boy in the industry, but he looked and sounded nearly unrecognizable in the film, as he attempted to do his best “Willis 30 years ago impression,” playing a younger version of the veteran actor. And time travel? The very mention of the topic had moviegoers yelling “plot holes ahoy!” far before the film’s actual release.
But it may surprise you that Looper is far better than you might initially assume. Its two leads are perhaps in the best roles they’ve had in years, and director Rian Johnson has created a new genre classic, a time travel movie that…actually makes sense. Well, as much as any time travel movie can.
Johnson is best known for Brick, a low budget high school crime drama also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a script so sharp it practically drew blood by the end of the film. Here, he’s graduated to a Hollywood budget, and made good use of it.
In the future, time travel has been invented, but is immediately made illegal. As such, it’s only used by organized crime syndicates, and only then as a way to dispose of people they want to “disappear” as it’s impossible to hide a dead body in the future. The unfortunate victims are transported back thirty years and placed in front of a Looper, a young man with a shotgun who instantly blows them away and gets rid of the body. It’s a thirty year contract, and at the end of it, it’s the Loopers turn to “close the loop” as they say. One day, the body zapped in front of them will be their own, and they get to live the next thirty years rich, and aware of what’s waiting for them at the end of the line.
Overlooking the fact that using the invention of time travel for the sole purpose of disposing of dead bodies is like just using space flight to dump all our trash on the moon, the universe Johnson has created here is a rather cool one. Outside of the time travel, he doesn’t make the future too ridiculous in 2044, something many films have been prone to do. Guns still shoot bullets. People still wear ties.
The central Looper of the story, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), finds himself in a predicament when his future self (Bruce Willis) escapes his death sentence after he’s transported back to have his loop closed. Young Joe must hunt down himself or risk being butchered by the crime syndicate he works for. Meanwhile, Old Joe is on the prowl for someone else. In thirty years, a child grows up to be ruthless crime boss that devastates the city and orders the closing of all the loops. Old Joe wants to figure out who the boss is in the past, and kill him so his own life is spared from tragedy.
It’s a complex story, as time travel films usually are, but once you’re able to map out the three distinct altered timelines the film puts forth, you’re able to make sense of it without any yawning plot holes. It might take you a half hour after the film to sort it all out, but it does all line up once you really think about it. It’s more Terminator than Primer, let’s say.
The film, though full of solid action sequences and another great script from Johnson, is not without flaws. It starts to drag hard when Joe stumbles his way onto a farm owned by a country girl named Sara (the very English Emily Blunt) and stays there for what seems like way too long. There’s also the fact that a small telekinesis mutation among the population is mentioned briefly in the first five minutes of the film. After that, it’s all but ignored for the next 95% of the movie, until it suddenly becomes the most important thing in the entire film. Time travel movie plots are notoriously jarring, but there are some definite structural problems here.
The film elicits a different performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt than we’ve ever seen before. It would have been easy for him and the director to simply say “eh, he looks close enough,” when casting him as a younger Bruce Willis, but for Looper he underwent hours of make-up each morning to look like the older actor, and has altered his voice so he’s further removed from the JGL we’ve seen in almost every other role. And I suppose if you’re Willis, you’ve earned the right for the younger actor to be made-up to look like you, rather than the other way around.
Looper is slick sci-fi flick that has the added bonus of not being a remake, reboot or sequel, a true rarity in today’s movie landscape. It struggles in parts, but produces solid performances from its leads thanks to a great script and the eye of an up and coming director to watch.
4 out of 5 stars