(This review was originally published on October 1, 2012 at Reel Film News)
It speaks volumes for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s agent that the actor has starred in the two best sci-fi action films of the past decade; first Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” in 2010 and now Rian Johnson’s “Looper”, which takes the concept of time travel into mind-bending new territory, to say the least. Though undoubtedly inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick, Gene Roddenberry and even Stephen King (more than one scene reminded me of “Firestarter”), Johnson transcends comparison to his forefathers by sticking to his creative guns.
It’s 2044, Kansas. The film focuses on Joe (Gordon-Levitt), one of a group of young hit men called ‘loopers’, who assassinate anonymous targets that are sent to them from thirty years in the future. Time travel has not been invented yet, but it will have been in 2074, and just as quickly made illegal; that doesn’t stop a high-powered crime syndicate from snagging this technology – which the film is wise not to elaborate on – as a means of eliminating loose ends, which they transport back to the loopers, bound and hooded, for a tidy disposal. Apparently, it’s nearly impossible to put out a good old-fashioned mob hit in 2074.
This process is so thorough that each looper has their own expiration date, an inevitability known as ‘closing the loop’, in which their future self, if still alive, is sent back to 2044 to take a round from their own blunderbuss (a muzzle-loading, short-range firearm), thereby eliminating any connection to the criminal organization. This moment comes with a big payday that seems to make it all worthwhile, a long-term severance package of gold that releases them from their contract, as the clock starts ticking. Considering most of them are drug-addicted brothel-regulars by night, enjoying the next thirty years as wealthy men seems like a reasonable tradeoff.
“Looper” poses some serious existential questions, but none that writer/director Johnson (“Brick”, “The Brothers Bloom”) can’t follow up on, or at least gloss over, until the next fascinating plot point. When a ruthless crime lord known as ‘The Rainmaker’ mandates that all loops be closed immediately, Joe’s older incarnation (Bruce Willis, in his best role since “The Sixth Sense”) shows up from the future already prepared to evade the fate that awaits him at his own hand. When Levitt’s young Joe botches the job, known as ‘letting your loop run’, a hit is put out on him by Abe (Jeff Daniels), the mob liaison that controls the team of assassins in the film’s 2044 timeline; Joe tries to eliminate his older self before he completes his own mission to alter the future. Talk about an internal conflict.
Whatever leftovers there are from the film’s perpetually spinning wheel of logic feel more like unexplored aspects of the story than careless plot holes (you really could analyze it into the ground, but wouldn’t you rather just enjoy a great movie?). The brain twister is: how could your future possibly unfold the way that your older version remembers it if, by returning to the present time and explaining it to your younger self, you would unquestionably change that outcome? Willis sums it up for Gordon-Levitt over breakfast at a diner when the question arises: “My memories aren’t memories. Just one possible eventuality.”
And trust me, it gets a lot more cerebral than that. Like any time/space twisting premise, it’s tough to wrap your head around, but this one digs deep enough to come up with some plausible explanations nonetheless. The film is brilliantly executed, particularly in the last thirty minutes where sci-fi/concept films like “In Time” typically overshoot their intended mark. Johnson’s script ties it all together with a chain of events that introduces several hypotheses until taking a very direct course to its final moment, a path laden with some scenes of very intense, effective violence.
Though full of plenty of stylish effects, it’s the script and the cast that make it such a memorable film, which also stars Emily Blunt (“The Adjustment Bureau”), Piper Perabo (“Covert Affairs”) and Paul Dano (“Ruby Sparks”) as Seth, young Joe’s best friend who is presented with a similar conundrum while ‘finding himself’ .
Even after all the hype, “Looper” still surprised me, right down to the believable prosthetic treatment given Gordon-Levitt’s face to make him more closely resemble a young Bruce Willis (I suppose that was easier than doing it the other way around). For thinking folks, you’re not likely to find a more original and well-constructed genre film in recent years; I typically avoid superlatives, but this is the best time-travel/alternate perspective type film I’ve ever seen (yes, that includes the first two “Terminator” movies). It’s just awesome.