Time travel is always a dicey concept to tackle in media, especially nowadays, when even the slightest hint of a plothole in science fiction can be enough to send the internet into a meltdown from all of the raging fanboys.
Looper is a time travel story alright, but it also isn’t. Time travel is the hook and the main plot point, but Looper is really just a gangster movie dressing itself up in sci-fi clothes. The story of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trying to track down his future self (Bruce Willis) after a botched execution so he can avoid the wrath of his mob boss Abe (Jeff Bridges) and keep some innocent bystanders (Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon) safe is the kind of film where, by dropping any mention of time travel and changing Willis’ character to someone else, could easily be a by the numbers Mafia tale.
But there the time travel is. For me, in terms of films like this where plotholes and bad science abound, the test is simple. Is the core of the story strong enough for me to overlook, even accept those plotholes? Is Looper another Inception, another complex film about futuristic technology, but where the fallacies of that technology can be ignored due to the excellence of everything that is built around it? In the way that Inception could be accurately described simply as just a film about a man feeling guilty over his part in his wife’s suicide, can Looper be more that just a time travel adventure?
The time travel is weak in Looper. The second the credits roll you are already asking yourself the questions you always tend to ask after watching a time travel story:
Wait, if he killed that guy, how was he able to come back from the future? Isn’t he dead now? Wouldn’t that negate everything?
If you present self dies, thus making the future self disappear, why didn’t they just kill the young Seth character at the start?
Does breaking timelines in that fashion create alternate universes?
The mob can do time travel but no one else does?
Wouldn’t the very presence of future Joe in the present timeline pollute it to the extent that he could never meet his wife? The butterfly effect?
And on and on we go. Yes, it detracts from the viewing experience. Time travel is never an easy thing to do, but director Rian Johnson gives it a very good shot here. I worry that Looper might be the kind of film I grimace at a year from now due to those problems, but on an initial viewing I did not find the inherent flaws in the time travel plot point to be too irritating.
It helps that the actual story is a decent one. Using impressive facial imagery, Gordon-Levitt really does look like a younger Willis, and sounds like him too. The acting on display isn’t of the Oscar-winning variety, but Joe is supposed to be a hardened killer: the emotive range doesn’t have to be that wide. The brief moment when Joe expresses something other than grim stoicism are well done, most especially when Willis narrates to his younger self about his future wife and what she will do to help him with his drug addiction, a brilliant scene. Willis is generally good in nearly everything he does, while Gordon-Levitt, over the last few years, has quickly become one of my favourite actors.
Looper could have done with a bit more interaction between the two sides of the main character actually, because the handful of times there are in the same place I was enthralled. That is the attraction of the time travel story I suppose, stuff like younger and older versions of people meeting. I suppose we may all have thought, at some point, that we could go back in time and give our younger selves some advice, some guidance. I think that way occasionally when I read over things I have written from years ago. Looper seems like part of its inspiration was from that desire.
At its heart though, Joe’s story isn’t especially new. He’s a mob hitman who is saving his way so he can get out of the game, suddenly forced to come to terms with the reality of what he does. That this comes in the form of a violent showdown with his future self gives it something special to keep you interested, but as said before, Joe’s tale is just a few alterations away from being very run of the mill.
The narrative structure, the pacing, isn’t super great really. The first half is fantastic, a world set up quickly, the seriousness of the situation spelled out in easy terms. “Show, don’t tell” is used to the full in two gripping scenes regarding one of Joe’s friends who fails to kill his future self – “closing the loop” on his mob contract, as all such assassins must do. The first is an unnerving verbal showdown between Joe and his boss Abe, which enables the title character to be shown as both overly-obsessed with his French escape plan and somewhat spineless in the face of the right threat.
The second, where the mob hunt down the missing target by systematically removing parts from the unlucky Seth, causing the same wounds and amputations to appear on his older self, was an utterly chilling and horrific bit of cinema. The sight of that older version, crawling pitifully towards his own execution, minus fingers, nose, legs and tongue, just so he can try and save his younger self from the gruesome fate he is going through, was one of the most effective bits of horror I have ever seen in a cinema, and instantly had me believing in the serious consequences of failing to “close the loop”. Creating such tension was an excellent way of moving the audience past any questions about time travel, at least until the second part of the movie.
The first half gave the impression of being a hunt between young and old Joe, so that only one of them can walk the Earth in charge of their lives. Young Joe see’s the old as an obstacle he has to overcome to find what he thinks is his happiness, while old looks with disdain on his drug-addled past. That’s good stuff.
But from that diner confrontation that is probably Looper’s best bit, the film veers dramatically into much slower paced territory, as the young Joe takes it upon himself to defend a mother and child from the targeting of old Joe, obsessed with hunting down the young version of the future criminal overlord who has a vendetta against loopers. This was a radical change of pace and tone, turning Looper into something more akin to Road to Perdition, a redemption story, as Joe gets over the death of his own mother and his aimless bloody lifestyle by finding something better to fight for. Alongside that is the introduction of the child, Cid, a rather creepy youngster hiding his own dark secret.
I wasn’t a huge fan of this change in pace. As Willis was off engaging in genuine moral quandaries and targeting the “Gat Men” of the assassination business, Gordon-Levitt finds himself stuck in a clumsy romance sub-plot and some slightly darker stuff with Cid. Only one of those stories was of any interest to me, and the intermingling of the two at the films conclusion – a very brief, rather flat conclusion, save for the genuinely interesting “twist” – was somewhat of a letdown.
That conclusion comes fast, as the credits role on a bittersweet finale, one that must be invariably clouded by the questions it throws up, some of them mentioned above. But the moment that young Joe turns his gun on himself, without a shred of hesitation, is one of the better ending moments than I have seen in a long while. That brief sharp shock an audience member feels when he swings the blunderbuss his way is something that I find altogether rare in cinema viewing experiences nowadays – a genuine surprise ending, that actually has a grain of logic too it (even if Joe’s rationale for committing suicide was a bit of a leap for that character to make, yet, shows him coming full circle from the man who sold one of his friends out for literal pieces of silver earlier on).
Part of that might be from all the things that Looper is trying to be. It’s Goodfellas, it’s Road to Perdition, there’s a bit of Judge Dredd and Children of Men in there too in the general world, one where society and the rule of law seemed to have collapsed for the most part, with violence being a much more commonplace solution to problems, brilliantly illustrated in a moment when we witness a homeless thief shotgunned in the back by his civilian victim without the slightest hesitancy
But it’s also got a rather large amount of inspiration from the Terminator franchise, especially the first movie, as Willis comes back from the future, hellbent on using assassination to change his fate in distant years. The cinematography and the score all evoke memories of Arnold Schwarzenegger stalking Linda Hamilton, with Gordon-Levitt taking over the Michael Biehn role (coincidently, Garret Dillahunt ,another Gat Man, was one of the main characters in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles).
Looper was working great as a Joe vs Joe story. I was looking forward to a last hour that would involve the cat and mouse between the two men, the younger self trying desperately to outfox the pld man with all the experience, Willis trying to deal with a more youthful enemy than he was used to, and all with the Gat Men in the middle. The whole looper/Gat Man enmity, with its simple, yet effective, imagery regards their respective firearms, was something that could definitely have been looked at a bit more. That movie failed to materialise, in favour of more clumsy and ultimately more confusing terrain. I could ignore the problems of the general premise for the first hour. Not in the second.
The other problem I have is the waste of good roles in terms of screentime. The main focus is on Joe, and I suppose that’s fine, but it is frustrating to see the amount of time given over to the likes of Blunt – ok-ish, but not doing anything spectacular as the protective mother who falls for Joe in a stupidly fast amount of time– when the characters portrayed by Jeff Bridges and Noah Segan seem far more interesting and better acted. Bridges gets killed off-screen, while the vendetta that “Kid Blue” has with Joe is concluded with a very quick and unsatisfying shoot-out. That was a shame, because I really liked the contrast drawn between Joe, the golden boy, and Blue, who so desperately wants some of the same praise heaped on him.
And there are plenty of clever little touches in Looper that make it endearing. The simple set-up for the “Jen has less letters” joke. The aforementioned gun symbolism, with the wealth obsessed, short-term thinking loopers fighting with a latter day blunderbuss, that only hits the target on a range of 15 yards. The tie-ins of various characters, like the stripper young Joe is attracted to having a kid on old Joe’s death list. Solar panels on cars to illustrate easily that it is a fuel-scarce future. Just good moments that bring Looper up from its myriad of deeper flaws.
Is it good enough to overlook the holes? Yes, it is, but only just. The good dual performance of the leads, the great first hour, the effective horror at times and the little touches all add up to make Looper a good movie. More than that, it is brave movie to make. It would take some vision and drive to conceive of a mobster/time travel mash-up and get it to the big screen, but the team behind Looper has done just that. I don’t like using the term “originality” for a movie like this, given the many obvious influences, but Looper is a breath of fresh air. It’s no Inception, but it is an attempt at making something, a mix of various something’s I suppose, that has not been done before. That deserves credit. A very basic mob story could have been made with Looper, but Johnson went for it and did something beyond that.
I didn’t like large parts of it, but I would still recommend it. Looper is worth seeing, whether you are a Mob or sci-fi movie fan. Just don’t go in expecting to be totally blown away. Like young Joe, Looper hits most of the time, but misses occasionally.