I feel it is only fair to warn you that there are very light spoilers for Looper in the review below. I have seen the movie and can assure you they are absolutely far from important given how complex the film is, but if you’re one of those people who wants to go into the movie completely fresh, I thought I would give you a heads-up.
Rian Johnson’s Looper is built on a fascinating concept. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, a man commissioned to kill unnamed victims of a futuristic gang that sends them back in time to avoid the hassle of dealing with bodies. Joe’s job is complicated when one of his targets appears, and is revealed to be his older self (Bruce Willis). The combination of Willis and Gordon-Levitt sounds like any cinephile’s ideal on-screen couple, and the concept of “loopers” is easily any science fiction nerd’s perfect premise. It is good, then, that Looper mostly delivers, despite falling prey to periodic narrative inconsistencies and underutilized characters.
When I refer to inconsistencies, it is important to note that I am not referring to time travel. I understand that time travel is trope which inherently incurs all sorts of logical issues, and as such I paid very little attention to how these temporal shifts worked within the confines of the story. What I did find hard to stomach, however, is something that has killed the potential of so many promising science fiction films: rule-breaking.
Without spoiling the story, the older version of Joe has come back in time in order to seek revenge for the future murder of his significant other. That might seem like a workable backstory, except that the entire premise of loopers is that in the future, people can’t be killed all willy-nilly due to body-tag tracking; that’s why they get sent back in time in the first place, so that the body can be disposed of without a hitch. This paradox ultimately hurts Bruce Willis’s character, because it makes his history feels like a contrived plot device instead of a real, believable motivation for anger.
The acting in Looper is unsurprisingly fantastic. Bruce Willis is far from the subtle nuance of his character in Moonrise Kingdom, but he works well as an older Joe. Gordon-Levitt and Sara (Emily Blunt) also do just fine, although they’re not really stretching themselves here the way they have in past roles.
The real star of the show, however, is Pierce Gagnon as Sara’s son, Cid. This kid is absolutely wonderful; he easily gives the stand-out performance, perfectly demonstrating his ability to handle intense dialogue and explosive emotion. Amidst all of that, he also has some killer comedic timing. I look forward to seeing him in future projects where he can show us even more of what he can do.
I was conversely very disappointed with how Jeff Daniels’ character, Abe, was handled. While he has some truly spectacular dialogue sequences in the first part of the film as the leader of the loopers, his arc all but disappears in Looper‘s second and third acts. Compared to the last film he did with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scott Frank’s excellent The Lookout, his role here feels terribly anemic as it comes to a very ho-hum conclusion: a real shame given Daniels’ incredible talent.
The first part of the film feels appropriately unpredictable as Johnson uses clever cutting and time-jump mechanics to show us Joe’s world, but the film begins to drag as it enters its second half. At this point Joe is no longer in the hustle and bustle of the city, instead sticking to the quieter scenery of the countryside. I have nothing against rural settings, of course, but as action and suspense are traded for drama and mystery, the pace of Looper slows significantly. While it does pick up again in its final act, this whole sequence feels out of place, especially as it intermittently cuts to the more action-heavy scenes with Bruce Willis.
Looper is, at the end of the day, one of the good-but-not-great science fiction films of the 21st century. I applaud Rian Johnson for doing something different with this movie, and for striking a fairly original plot from the usual molds of the genre; influences of movies like Akira and The Butterfly Effect are evident, but they are given a fresh spin in the Looper universe. I wish Johnson had paid a bit more attention to his narrative than to the science fiction. For now, Looper stands just above other decent genre movies like Inception and District 9, and fails to pierce the ranks of Moon, Children of Men, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Verdict: Movie Win (with reservations)
A Note On Rule-Breaking – “Rule-breaking” is a phenomenon where the filmmaker sets up certain parameters at the beginning of the story, and then proceeds to completely ignore them as the story moves forward. Perhaps the best recent example of this unforgivable conceit is Inception, where Christopher Nolan decided midway through his movie that everything he had set up prior was entirely moot. In contrast, The Matrix perfectly follows every single rule it sets up, giving the movie a real sense of immersion and believability.
A Note on Looper versus Dredd – All things being equal, I would probably recommend that you see the recently-released Dredd over Looper; the appeal of the big-name actors here is hard to resist, but Dredd is so air-tight in comparison that it’s hard for me not to give it my vote.
A Note on Die Hard – I was very put-out by a late-movie action sequence featuring on Bruce Willis. In this scene, Willis essentially channels John McClane as he Rambo’s his way through a series of armed guards. It feels like an over-the-top, out-of-place action moment that would better fit in the next Die Hard; I’m pretty sure I even heard him say “Yippe kai yay, mother f*****.”
A Note on Continuity – I normally don’t care about continuity problems and do my best not look for them, but when Rian Johnson forces us to look at a character’s face through several close-up shots, they are nearly impossible to miss. Again, this usually doesn’t matter to me; here, it happened to break my immersion enough to warrant a mention.