We are long overdue a great time travel adventure. Sure, we’ve had dramas such as Midnight in Paris and mind-bending thrillers such as Primer, but there hasn’t been a proper edge-of-your-seat time travel movie since 12 Monkeys, nor a fun one since the Back to the Future trilogy.
Thank goodness for Looper. Clever without being baffling, fun without being silly, Rian Johnson’s film balances its own mythology with a pulp thriller story that feels simultaneously classical and entirely new. Johnson, the writer/director of cult high school noir Brick and the seen-by-few (and liked by fewer) The Brothers Bloom, is a film fan’s filmmaker, a man who has imbibed the Hollywood genre greats, and who now pours those ideas through the blender of his brain and creates some fascinating, if hitherto not entirely successful chimaeras. Looper’s influences are evident and many, and surprisingly none of them are films about time travel.
Starting off 30 years from now in Kansas City, Looper is set in an America wracked with colossal rates of unemployment and homelessness, but where the well-to-do dress like guest stars on Mad Men. A comment on the trajectory of modern America, sure, but that’s where the social commentary ends. Another 30 years down the road, in 2072, time travel technology has been developed, but only for use by the wealthiest and most duplicitous of people. Rather than risk a Back to the Future-style paradox, the global mob of 2072 uses time travel for the sole purpose of disposing of corpses – easily tracked in the future, easily gotten rid of in the past.
In 2042, mob goons called loopers are assigned the task of gunning down newly materialised mob targets the moment they appear from 2072. It’s good work if you can get it, but it comes at a high price. Looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is happy with his lot; splashing his cash on cars, drugs and a prostitute with a heart of gold. But things get thrown for a loop for him (sorry) when his latest target is revealed to be himself, 30-years-older, and now looking like Bruce Willis. Willis knocks his young self out and goes on the run, set on a mission to alter the future, while Gordon-Levitt must track down his older, wilier self while evading his own bosses at looper HQ, who can instantly take out the elusive Willis by killing Gordon-Levitt, thereby erasing Willis from the timeline.
Ostensibly a chase movie through a neo noir future, Looper keeps its story energised by keeping the time travel repercussions as simple as possible. As long as Willis is still there, he knows Gordon-Levitt will grow up to be him. As Gordon-Levitt acquires fresh cuts and injuries, Willis develops brand new, decades-old scars.
Looper is as smart in its dialogue as it is in its ideas. Gordon-Levitt and Willis spar over their shared memories in the film’s most cleverly crafted scene. Looper boss Abe (a delightfully sneering Jeff Daniels) chastises his young employees for dressing in suits and ties, an out-dated fashion now brought back by the Mod-like gangsters – fashion has a cyclical nature, underscoring the film’s central theme. Language, too, has come full circle; the word “blunderbuss” has been uprooted from the history books to refer to the loopers’ heavy-duty shotguns.
Johnson’s team have crafted a terrific thriller here, with crisp, bright imagery and coherent editing. The score hums and clicks with electronic, industrial sounds overlaying traditional instruments. Gordon-Levitt, belatedly (by a decade) the in-demand actor of the hour, is tough yet endearing in the lead role, and the fine makeup that makes him a believable antecedent to Bruce Willis (most notably wearing Willis’s curling nose) never distracts from his performance. Willis plays the weary, broken-hearted avenger he’s based the last decade of his career on with expected fluency. Only Johnson regular Noah Segan disappoints, in the underdeveloped role of token villain Kid Blue.
The film’s seemingly boundless energy comes to a crashing halt in the third act as Willis heads off on his mission and Gordon-Levitt hides out at the rural home of Emily Blunt’s suspicious Sara. The rhythm of the film goes all to hell for nearly 20 minutes, and the temptation to, like the characters in the movie, repeatedly glimpse at your watch is hard to resist. But this is all forgiven in a shocking, brilliantly conceived final quarter hour, that is as exciting as it is philosophical.
Aside from that late lull, the film’s most troubling aspect is its narration, lazily used to explain its mythology and technology, and it’s left unclear from where or when (or on what timeline) Gordon-Levitt is narrating. But Looper succeeds in making its world easily accessible, and more impressively manages to make its two anti-heroes – one a junkie out to kill his future self, the other so hell-bent on vengeance he will stop at nothing to do what he insists is right – likeable and worthy of our attention.
With echoes to films as eclectic as Witness and Akira and with a finale drawing on the magnificent climax of the supposedly inimitable Russian classic Come and See, Looper is a minor triumph of genre-bending entertainment.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)