"In 2072, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits. Someone like Joe, who one day learns the mob wants to 'close the loop' by transporting back Joe's future self." (Source: IMDB)
Kansas City, 2044. “Time travel has not yet been invented, but 30 years from now, it will have been.” So begins Looper, the third film from writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), a future-noir science-fiction film that oozes style and nearly matches it with high-concept, time-travel substance.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays ‘looper’ Joseph “Joe” Simmons, a freelance assassin paid lowly wages to kill and dispose of the mob’s targets. Only, said targets are from thirty years into the future, where crime scene analysis and forensic techniques have grown so sophisticated, leaving no trace of a victim behind is nigh on impossible. But when Joe’s future-self is sent back through time in order for him to “close the loop” (the film’s own lexicon, signalling the closure of the hired gun’s contract), Looper finds itself *prosthetic* nose-dive into a topsy-turvy game of cat and mouse.
With an opening ten minutes or so tied into explaining the film’s playful logic and establishing the world we find ourselves in – we come to learn telekinesis has been unlocked in a small population of humanity; and dive head-first into a downtrodden state of unemployment, rampant organised crime, drug misuse (administered through eye drops) and petty violence – Looper’s foundations are sturdy, painting a Blade Runner-influenced future where (almost) anything goes.
Forget, too, the fact that the time travel aspect of the film doesn’t always make sense, because it needn’t always make a whole lot of sense. In bringing a more relaxed approach to the time travel concept at its core, Johnson never allows Looper to get too bogged-down in the science behind it, shunning any opportunity for nerd debates down the line – “I don’t want to sit here and talk about time travel stuff”, says older Joe (Willis) to Levitt in a fantastic tête-à-tête diner confrontation, “It doesn’t matter!”
It’s a smart move, and one that allows Johnson to fully apply his stylish directorial flair and pose some intriguing questions without having to worry too much about where it leaves the film scientifically speaking. In addition to bringing up themes of nature versus nurture, destiny, fate, and playing with cause and effect in a neat way (scar tissue lasts forever, don’t you know!?), it also lets Johnson play around with the narrative structure in interesting ways; using the time-travel formula to shift the focal point of the movie in ways difficult to grasp upon first viewing but ultimately worth the pay-off.
The performances, too, are strong, with Levitt displaying a youthful arrogance, verve and smarm only ever suppressed by the smart resourcefulness and maturity of his older self – Bruce Willis, still such a massive on-screen presence. The time travel crux of the movie gives the relationship between the two a wholly unique but intriguing dynamic, coming to the fore in a fantastic rat-a-tat confrontation in a run-down diner. Levitt’s intentions are clear: kill his older self, close the loop and retire in style. Willis’s are a little shadier. By killing whom he believes to have been behind his wife's murder – a mysterious crime lord and terrorist mastermind known only as 'The Rainmaker' – in 2074 in 2044, he seeks to bring her back from the grave, before they've even met.
If that sounds overly complicated, then it needn't, because Looper never stretches itself conceptually speaking and is never quite as smart as it thinks it is. In fact, the story is fairly basic, and the film sags because of it; losing much of the promise, scale and zippy pace of its opening by moving to pastures new – a remote Kansas farm inhabited by tough-as-nails farmer Emily Blunt and estranged young son, Cid (a brilliant performance by Pierce Gagnon, seriously one to watch).
In doing so, we not only are stripped of a portion of the film's memorable futuristic art style and testing of the time travel waters, but also of its best characters – Jeff Daniels is superb as the world-wisened mob boss Abe, head of the 'Looper' crime ring (“I'm from the future, go to China”), while Noah Segan adds a touch of light humour to proceedings in playing fuck-up mob hand Kid Blue.
In choosing not to develop the story any further and instead settling for one of the film's otherwise abandoned sub-plots to bring the action to an all-too neat close, the climax of the film feels like a bit of a cop-out, even if it does allow the themes of the movie to seep to the surface once again, leaving even the faintest lasting impression. Like a child prodigy just waiting to come of age and unlock his devastating true potential, Looper in the end comes perilously close to being something truly special, but one that never quite capitalises on its early promise. 8