[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Ivan K. Enjoy!]
Most films arrive into theaters to be seen once before being immediately forgotten. Other films become inescapable as pop culture sensations. 2012’s Looper is stuck in limbo between being forgettable and being a work of genius. It’s far from the usual Hollywood fare of mindless action, yet there are aspects of the film that keep it from being a minor sci-fi classic. However, for filmgoers bored of rehashed stories and recycled ideas, Looper provides enough clever writing, action, and quality acting to make the two-hour runtime go by in a flash.
Looper is the third film written and directed by Rian Johnson. His first film Brick was an art-house success, and it helped to propel Joseph Gordon-Levitt into stardom. His second film The Brothers Bloom made less of an impact, although Johnson was able to regain his footing by directing some of the best episodes of Breaking Bad.
Looper stars Gordon-Levitt as Joe, and Bruce Willis as Joe’s future self. Joe is 25 years old in the year 2044, where he’s been recruited by a hitman from the future. From Joe’s narration, we learn time travel will be both invented and outlawed in the year 2074. Underground criminals send back targets with bars of pure silver strapped around their bodies, and a “looper” is hired to shoot them on sight (in Joe’s case, his victims materialize on a tarp in the middle of a remote cornfield). The looper gets to keep the silver, and since their targets are masked, they never have to know their victim’s backstory or name. And when a looper is eventually “retired”, they’re sent back in time to be killed by their younger selves, which will ideally close the loop, hence the name “looper”.
However, things are not as easy as they seem, and failure to close the loop results in serious consequences. One of Joe’s friends Seth finds this out the hard way when his next target turns out to be his future self. He can’t go through with it and lets his older self get away, and as payback, he’s mutilated by the crime syndicate. This has the side effect of causing Future Seth’s fingers and feet to spontaneously disappear before our eyes (yes, the movie seems to subscribe to the Timecop school of time travel theory where characters can actually see changes to the timeline as they happen).
Meanwhile, Joe gets ready to dispose of his next target, but it also turns out to be his own future self. Future Joe (Willis) has appeared without a mask, which stops young Joe dead in his tracks, allowing Future Joe to make his escape. This apparently causes a massive change in the timeline.
We then get a glimpse of how things unfolded in the “original” timeline: Young Joe kills his future self, then lives out his life until he marries a woman in Shanghai. When it’s time for him to close his loop, he resists, so the criminals kill his wife. And when he’s sent back, he decides to try to change the future to save his wife.
This is where the heavy time travel element gets downplayed in favor of a more Terminator-style story, where Old Joe tries to eliminate the guy responsible for his wife’s death, a crime boss called the “Rainmaker”, while he’s still a child. And as Young Joe tries to stop him, he stumbles onto a farm where he falls in love with a woman (Emily Blunt) who’s taking care of a boy who eventually reveals himself to be the future Rainmaker.
One of the pleasures of Looper is in the way it plays with conventions and how it surprises you at nearly every turn. Time travel has been explored many, many times before, but rarely has a big-budget film exploited the possibilities to this degree. Not only that, but the movie never talks down to the audience as if they need an explanation for everything.
The emotional core of the story is also strong, which is unusual for an action film. Even though most of Looper focuses on violent and ruthless people, we come to sympathize with them and understand their decisions even if we don’t agree with them. In some ways, it’s like the Goodfellas of time travel films—a compelling drama and character study of people we would never want to cross paths with in real life. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are especially convincing as two versions of the same man.
But as it shifts gears in the second half, Looper loses a lot of the energy of the first hour. The main reason is that time travel, and all the exciting possibilities that go along with it, are mostly relegated to the background. Instead, the story becomes more concerned with how, in the world of this movie, a significant part of the population has begun exhibiting telekinetic powers. The telekinesis aspects never won me over, even though they’re a major part of the story.
It’s hard to fault a film for trying too much when most action films aim low, but I wish Looper had stepped back from the telekinesis to focus more on the interaction between the two versions of Joe. Had the film gone in an entirely different direction, it could have been a more subtle character study about a man getting the opportunity to do what we all dream of: go back and meet our younger selves and undo past regrets and change the way our lives played out.
Instead, the conversations between Joe and Joe remain mostly about business, and while I’m sure that hitmen don’t make for the best conversationalists, I would have loved for the filmmakers to have fleshed these scenes out more. I could get behind the rest of the story had these scenes been more intimate, more compelling, and maybe had a touch of wit. We know the cast and crew have the skill to blend the humorous with the dark: Willis was able to generate plenty of laughs amidst the chaos of the Die Hard films, and Rian Johnson directed three episodes of a series notable for its blend of humor and stark drama.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning the bizarre prosthetic makeup that Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears to look like a younger version of Bruce Willis. To say that it’s kind of creepy would be an understatement. At best, it’s a major distraction. Most people remember what Bruce Willis looked like when he was younger, yet Gordon-Levitt has been made up like Bill Bixby in mid-Hulk transformation. During the cafe scene, where the two Joes meet for the first time, it becomes comical due to the outlandish chin, painted eyebrows, colored contacts, and overall strangeness of the younger Joe’s appearance.
Gordon-Levitt does his best Bruce Willis impersonation, and to his credit, he often does get that bemused half-smirk just right. But that doesn’t change the fact that all the makeup work spent getting the two actors to look alike comes off as a gimmick that mostly just detracts from the story.
In the end, Looper is a film worth seeing once due to its originality, acting, and strong script. While the movie’s time travel mechanics don’t come close to making sense, and it unfortunately turns into more of a routine chase movie towards the end, the majority of it works because of the engaging script. Given that 2012 was a year full of remakes and sequels, Looper provides enough entertainment and originality to compensate for its faults.