Looper review

You can’t fault Looper for ambition, in a summer dominated by comic book adaptations and remakes writer/director Rian Johnson has made a bold science fiction film that is predicated upon intriguing ideas. Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a ‘Looper’ for the mob. A kind of hit-man, a Looper is an executioner who coldly dispatches anyone the mob wants disposed of. Which sounds simple enough except the Mob in question is based in the US of 2072 and Joe and the other Loopers work in the year 2042. See in 2072 it is almost impossible to dispose of a body, so the mob uses illegal time travel technology (not yet invented in 2042) to send unfortunates it wants rid of back in time where the bodies can be disposed of. Loopers like Joe are well remunerated for their efforts, but the profession has a limited timespan. When the mob wants to terminate a Looper’s contract, it simply sends the killer’s future self back to be their final victim. The Looper has no idea they have murdered themselves until they pull the hood from the body, and discover an extra fat payment strapped to the corpse. This is called closing the loop.

Joe is fine with this, he is too busy living a fast rock’n’roll lifestyle to care much. He keeps half his earnings back and plans to learn French and move to Europe when his loop is closed. What he hasn’t counted on is that his future self (Willis) has no intention of being disposed of so easily. The young Joe is then on a desperate chase to capture his older self, before the mob’s black duster clad gunmen can get to him first. This is not just a mere chase film however. It seems in the future a new and mysterious mob leader has brutally taken control and is closing all the loops. The older Joe is determined to stop him, and uses his knowledge of the future and his younger self to give himself an edge.

Looper is half a great film, and half an okay film that is quite clumsily bolted together in the middle. The first half is a fast-paced, exciting, sci-fi chase film that is bursting with ideas. One sequence in which an escaped older Looper finds out just how easily timelines  can be manipulated to their ultimate misfortune is one of the most potently horrific things I have seen this year. Writer/director Johnson carefully sets out his rules and the possibilities of messing around with time have not been so expertly portrayed since the little seen Spanish film Los cronocrímenes aka Timecrimes in 2007.

Gordon-Levitt’s appearance is initially off-putting, basically the actor looks nothing like a young Bruce Willis, so he is sporting a fake nose, chin and brow to bring him closer to the Willis of Moonlighting. At first it’s a bit weird, he looks stiff and odd, but then gradually Levitt will do something subtle with the corners of his eyes, his eyebrows, or his mouth and suddenly he is Willis. By the time the two actors are sharing screen-space, the illusion is complete. Levitt has a lot of fun being Bruce Willis, and frankly who wouldn’t. For his part Bruce Willis has a great time being Bruce Willis again (seriously, he kicks arse in this picture).

The vision of the future Johnson creates is refreshingly free from Blade Runner or Star Trek cliches. In fact the film from which Looper seems to have taken a lot of ideas is Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. It’s a dystopian future, but shiny new tech is limited to the odd transparent cell phone or Priest style jet bike, mostly the tech is current stuff with add-ons welded on. At one point Joe’s wealth is shown by his ability to own an unmodified (and fairly crappy by our standards) Mazda sorts car. There isn’t really a great deal of political or social background to explain why everything seems to be so shit, but that’s okay while the film zips along being exciting and cool.

The problem comes when the film essentially stops half way through and becomes a completely different film. The eagle-eyed will notice that the third billed star on the poster has not been mentioned. That’s because Emily Blunt isn’t in the movie until the second hour. Obviously it would be uncool to go into the plot at this point, but the film slows right down and themes that had just appeared to be a bit of SF window dressing come to the fore. It’s not bad, it’s just frustrating to have such a grinding gear change when we were having so much fun.

More damagingly the film loses grip on its time paradox mechanics at this point. Time travel films have to be perfect. The Terminator is perfect, Back to the Future is perfect, 12 Monkeys is perfect. If it’s merely good, then you run into the problem that rather than enjoy the ending of the film, half the audience (the Science Fiction reading half) are sitting there thinking ‘now wait a goddam minute’ and the whole edifice collapses like a house of cards.

This is a film that will launch 10,000 post-screening pub conversations; unfortunately, I think a few will end up in punchups.

Looper at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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