Time travel: singly responsible for some of the biggest noodle-scratchers on film. Looper gets the topic out of the way in one 30-second conversation between Bruce Willis (Joe) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (erm…also Joe…we’ll get to that…), in a scene in a coffee shop which recalls the tension of a similar sequence in Heat. Willis quickly puts a stop to Levitt’s pondering about changing his – and therefore Willis’ own – future, dismissing the idea as a waste of time.
This exchange sums up Looper in that it is an action film, a sci-fi film, and even a love story, but it doesn’t fall into the trappings or self-indulgence of any of the three. Instead the film moves at a pace, with only an intermittent voice-over to explain a few choice pieces of terminology.
According to the film, time travel is invented some time in the 2070s, and is immediately out-lawed. With movement restrictions and 24/7 surveillance at their peak, an easy nod to the present’s increasing ‘Big Brother’ culture, there is no way to dispose of a body in 2072, so organised crime decides to send their victims back in time to be taken out, meaning they never existed.
Joe is a ‘looper’, a hit-man who takes out these time-travelled targets for bars of silver with a trusty blunderbus. If the whole thing sounds like piracy, then it is. This is sci-fi piracy in the most tightly controlled and regulated way possible. The looper is given a specific time to be ready and waiting and the target appears in front of them, hands tied and face covered.
Both Willis and Levitt are the same character, 30 years apart, and as a result the character arc is immediately both interesting and confusing. The story begins with young Joe carrying out his day job with precision, this is a guy at the top of his game – think a more talkative Ryan Gosling in Drive – and as always, everything seems to be going well.
Of course, it doesn’t last, and the audience is treated to a massive helping of foreboding when one of Joe’s friends fails to complete the final task of any looper – ‘closing their loop’. As you can imagine, running a serious crime operation 30 years in the past leaves a lot of loose ends, so when your time as a looper is up they find your 30 years-older self and send them back as your final hit, leaving you to have relaxed three decades of retirement.
Knowing that Bruce Willis is in the film, it’s fairly obvious what happens next, and often this film doesn’t push the envelope enough in terms of story, but the chase movie we are presented with does succeed on being more than meets the eye.
Levitt is a triumph at being a younger, cockier Joe compared to Willis’ usual gruff old man, and the interplay between the pair is fun to watch – it’s almost a shame that they don’t spend more screen time together. The wider world of Looper pokes its head in now and again with a few subtle touches such as solar panels clumsily bolted onto every car and families living in an abandoned school bus, painting a picture of a world where the loopers’ type of killing could easily fit in unnoticed.
Emily Blunt is the only female part, save blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances from Piper Perabo and (Summer) Qing Xu, and surprisingly manages to give depth to Sara, who is, on paper, just a single mother who lives on a farm. Unfortunately the obligatory lovey-dovey scene forces the character to take a step back toward cliché territory.
It’s Sara’s ten-year-old son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) who really steals the show though, delivering matter-of-fact lines with conviction rarely seen (even in many adult actors), but with the inherent charm of a child.
Looper is a film riding on a wave of hype, and at times it struggles to keep up with itself, but largely it delivers on what it promises. With any film which has multiple actors playing one role, the chemistry and natural delivery of the stars is key, and luckily Levitt and Willis have the skills to make the concept convince. Though there have been some ‘touch-ups’ to Levitt to make him look more like Willis, it’s the performance which really convinces, and cements the idea in the audiences’ mind before Willis even appears on screen.
In the world of time-travel films, Looper sits comfortably alongside Willis’ own Twelve Monkeys as an example of how to do it well. A few snags prevent the film from achieving its fullest potential, but it does give far more than you might expect at first glance, and the performances quickly hook you in until the credits roll.
James Michael Parry