Movie Review: Looper
In Hollywood there’s a cliche that says that a movie will only be made if it can be described easily, and by using other popular films as descriptors. There’s a reason why say… Speed, was described as being “Die Hard on a bus.” Hell, there was a period of time where there was practically a cottage industry of movies described as being “Die Hard on a…”. It’s easy, and maybe a little lazy, to boil a film down to a simple pitch like that, but that’s Hollywood. I’m going to describe Looper in just such a way, but in the case of Looper, this description will probably (much like the movie itself) make your head swim. Picture this: Looper is what would happen if The Terminator, Carrie, Primer, and Goodfellas all fell into Seth Brundle’s telepod from The Fly. Sound confusing? It kinda is, but somehow this strange combination mostly works with just a few minor issues.
Looper is set in the near-ish future of 2044. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper. Loopers are assassins employed by criminal syndicates of the far flung future of 2074. Murder isn’t impossible in 2074, but hiding the bodies and escaping the police are. Thankfully for the criminal syndicates, time travel has been invented in 2074. Outlawed, sure, but when has that stopped the underworld? Now the syndicates send their marks back through time to 2044 where a looper is tasked with killing the mark and hiding the body. The catch? Loopers are so named because their last mark will be their thirty-years-older selves, which they must kill in order to close their “loop.”
If the looper doesn’t kill their older self, the present day syndicate will hunt down both of them in order to preserve the status quo in the future. Unfortunately for Joe, his loop is at an end. But Old Joe (Bruce Willis) isn’t going to allow the loop to close until he finds the identity of the Rainmaker, a shady player in the future who has taken control of the syndicate and is rapidly closing loops. Old Joe escapes to kill the younger Rainmaker, setting Joe and the syndicate in pursuit.
The concept and description of Looper is heady time travel stuff, but believe it or not, once the film is in motion, Looper is incredibly easy to follow. The wibbly-wobbly nature of time travel is always there threatening to derail the narrative of the film, but director/screenwriter Rian Johnson handles the confusing nature of the story with aplomb. In fact, at one point the script even has Bruce Willis comment on the how crazy the nature of time travel is while refusing to go into specifics. It’s a beautiful and funny moment, because Johnson’s script actually has the time travel pretty well in hand and does include those specifics when necessary.
Stylish and smart, Looper plays like a gangster movie that just happens to include rocket bikes, telekinetic humans, devastating global events, and time travel. One of the great things about Looper’s vision of the future is that (at least in the story’s “present”) it looks a whole lot like our present day. Clothes are similar, cars mostly look like present day vehicles (aside from those rarely used rocket bikes and the ever present solar panels on cars), houses and buildings look like present day dwellings. It’s the rare sci-fi future that looks a lot like what the future might actually be. Back to the Future 2 this is not.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t perfect. The weird inclusion of TKs (humans with telekinetic powers) feels a little thin. Especially when the explanation for them is basically, “they’re totally mutated humans. I dunno. Don’t think too hard.” Early in the film Joe explains that the TKs can really only levitate coins, but such a weird inclusion just means that you know the TK plot thread is going to come back and in a big way. And so, I spent the next hour and twenty minutes anticipating this thread’s return to the narrative. This plot thread doesn’t derail the story, but I can’t help but feel as if it’s the most underdeveloped aspect of Looper, and probably should have been excised. To make matters worse, late it the film it feels as if the TK abilities were introduced to simply make one character seem more menacing than they really are.
Looper also has some unfortunate pacing issues. Part of the second act and most of the third act take place on one single farm. The juxtaposition of the farm and the big city is an interesting twist, and Emily Blunt’s character, Sara, makes for a great foil during the time at the farm (not to mention helping to enforce one of Looper’s themes of Mommy issues). But the narrative pacing just takes a giant leap off a cliff during this sequence of events. What before felt like a speedy action/thriller just loses all forward momentum. Attempts are made at tension (some working better than others) but it just feels like the film is killing time on the clock until the explosive climax.
But even these missteps are easily ignored when you’re watching a film as refreshing as Looper. And a big part of that is the tremendous performances from the cast. Gordon-Levitt does an admirable job of emulating Bruce Willis’ mannerisms; the copious amounts of makeup and contact lenses don’t hurt, but make Gordon-Levitt look very strange. But there are moments when Gordon-Levitt holds his mouth just right and even though the two actors look almost nothing alike, you could swear you were looking at a young Willis.
The film doesn’t spend as much time with Willis as you might imagine it would (we’re truly in a new era when the kid from Third Rock from the Sun gets more screentime in a movie than Bruce Willis), but his work here is amazing. Deftly showing the audience the pain of the thirty years he lived beyond Young Joe, Willis adds layers to the character that you may not have realized exist. He’s a man on a singular mission, out of time and pursued by everyone. When Joe and Old Joe meet up it’s an amazing test of wills portrayed by two incredible actors.
The rest of the cast is filled with some incredible talent. Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Emily Blunt, Piper Perabo, and young Pierce Gagnon (playing the emotionally stunted child, Cid) all bring some downright fantastic performances to the table.
Looper is the rare film that can be described by mixing a bunch of genre favorites and not feel derivative as hell. It’s a time travel story that mostly makes sense, an action sci-fi film with it’s heart and mind on it’s sleeve. It’s refreshing and while it’s not perfect, what it gets right will make you ignore the stuff that it doesn’t.