Outlawed immediately, it’s used by organised crime bosses to send people back in time, so hitmen in the past can kill them and dispose of the bodies. It’s an untraceable crime – from the future’s point of view, the victims simply vanish.
The hitmen are known as loopers, because at some point they’ll be sent one final victim: their own future selves. Job complete, they’ll be paid off handsomely and allowed to live their lives, until the day they get the knock at the door and get sent back to be murdered by themselves. They’re trapped in a time loop, unable to cause any problems for their crime boss masters.
That’s the position protagonist Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds himself in as Looper opens. He’s a short-term thinker, seemingly okay with the ghoulish arrangement. The problem is, his future self isn’t as keen on being sent meekly back in time to die.
And he’s played by Bruce Willis.
Gordon-Levitt and Willis are both great, making an unlikeable character sympathetic. Young Joe is a self-interested killer and drug addict, but Gordon-Levitt gives him charisma and sensitivity. His impersonation of Willis, aided by facial prosthetics, is spot-on.
Old Joe is willing to go to unconscionable lengths to try to preserve his future but, behind the fading action-star bombast, Willis has the mournful, haunted desperation of a man who knows he’s probably screwed however this turns out.
The film’s best scene is the single extended meeting between the two, as the same man is alternately scornful of, repelled by and furious with his other self. The film’s success is built on the tension between their different outlooks and irreconcilable objectives. They’re electric together, which is why it’s such a shame they’re apart for far, far too much of the film.
Severe logical flaws in Looper
The weaknesses? The high concept contains severe logical flaws, some of which are admitted within the film and poorly explained away (isn’t time travel a bit overkill for corpse disposal? No, because of this thing that we’ll never mention again!), others of which are just ignored (probably less opportunity for cock-ups if different hitmen take care of each other’s older selves, no?).
Its time travel mechanics are pretty vague, as well, pretty much based on whatever would be most helpful for the plot.
But Looper‘s less concerned with these issues than it is with how its characters respond to its central dilemma: what does it take for you to look outside yourself (outside of your loop) and care about someone else more? It’s something Gordon-Levitt’s hedonistic assassin’s never considered. It’s a lesson Willis’ older version has learned before but seems to be forgetting with every vengeance-fuelled gunfight.
And it’s down to Emily Blunt’s farm-owning single mother to kick-start that redemption. And if that sounds like a bit of a sudden right-hand turn from all the time travel tomfoolery, it’s because it kind of is.
Joe’s character arc, by its nature, has to involve him moving away from the cycle he’s stuck in, but that cycle’s so gripping that you’d really rather he didn’t. The Serious Character Business of the back third of the film, which introduces Blunt plus another major character, just isn’t as compelling as the pulp sci-fi time travel stuff.
Combined with an ending that you’ve seen before in other time travel-based media, Looper doesn’t entirely fulfill the promise of its concept or its first hour.
Downgrade your expectations
My problem was inflated expectations, because I’m a big fan of writer/director Rian Johnson (if you like film noir even slightly, his Brick is essential), and I’d read reviews elevating the film to the same modern sci-fi great level as Children Of Men, The Matrix and 12 Monkeys.
It’s a very, very good film, with fantastic central performances, a highly original concept and a great sense of retro style. But for me it’s not quite up there with those genre classics.
I wanted to love it so much more than I did.
Basically, let me dampen your very high expectations and then you should go and see it. You may have a better experience than I did approaching it from the reverse position.