LOOPER Review: A New Way To Look In An Old Mirror
I’m a sucker for time-travel stories. This interest dates back to 1981/1982, when I was an 8th grader at Holy Rosary Catholic Grade School in Claymont, Delaware. For reasons that left my memory long ago, our class was treated to a reel-to-reel screening of the best episode of Star Trek ever made, The City on the Edge of Forever. In the episode, Kirk, Spock, and Bones travel back to the 1930s, after which Star Trek-type stuff ensues.
In most time-travel movies, the trip to another time is the centerpiece of the film; we are treated to how the lead from one time adapts to the environs of the time to which he has traveled, with the actual plot (hooking up your parents at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance; recruiting Socrates to help with your homework) merely the device (excuse?) to get the character to/from the destination time. But in writer/director Rian Johnson‘s sci-fi/thriller Looper, the trip through time is not the centerpiece of the film, but merely the means to the plot’s end.
The present year is 2044 and time travel is a reality, but given what that can mean in terms of the potential for the alteration of history, the government has banned the practice. Of course, the mob doesn’t particularly care what the government says, and they leverage time travel for a very specific purpose. Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a mob hit man called a “looper,” whose sole assignment, every time it is given to him, is to be in the same place at the same time of day and kill the bound and hooded person who appears before him in the blink of a time-traveling eye. The target – every target – has been sent back in time from 2074. By sending the target back in time, the mob ensures that his disappearance is (at least in theory wrapped in suspension of disbelief) untraceable.
Joe’s real trouble begins when his appointed mark is late to arrive to the usual spot. When he finally does arrive, he is unbound and unhooded. The surprise of this causes Joe to hesitate, allowing the mark enough time to escape. During the exchange, though, Joe recognizes that the mark is himself, only 30 years older. The need for a looper to kill his future self is what is known as “closing the loop,” and with that closure comes immediate retirement from the looper ranks and, in effect, begins the countdown clock on the looper’s life. But if a mark runs, the looper has issues to deal with that are more severe, and more immediate, than a 30-year ticking clock.
Johnson smartly sets up the motivation behind Old Joe’s (Bruce Willis) escape though a series of memories (to call them ‘flashbacks’ complicates any description because of the time differences). A mysterious, 2077 crime boss named “Rainmaker” is methodically closing every loop, sending older loopers back in time to be killed by their younger selves. When Old Joe is visited by Rainmaker’s men to be sent back in time, his wife (Summer Qing) is killed during the confrontation. Old Joe decides to take the trip back in time anyway, and takes with him information that leads to three children, one of whom will grow up to be Rainmaker. His goal is to kill Rainmaker as a child, thus altering the future and saving his wife’s life.
The idea alone for this film is worthy of praise. Film history is cluttered with assassins and hit men, all of whom have that one job that goes terribly wrong and creates havoc in their lives. Not only is this film rare in that it takes that scenario and adds the time travel element, it is rarer still in that a character must face killing a future version of himself.
Johnson’s vision of 2044 is a smartly-measured dystopia. It isn’t so glum as to be formulaic futuristic sci-fi, but it is glum enough to give the sense that society’s 2012 woes naturally progressed into something worse than 2012. And as anyone who writes about a time decades into the future is wont to do, Johnson adds some interesting details. Joe is paid in silver bars that are strapped to each of his victims (with a huge gold bar payout for closing the loop). He can convert them to cash, but being paid in precious metals either suggests a greater financial crisis awaits the world in 2074, or illustrates Johnson’s thoroughness of thought, that paper money from 30 years in the future might look different (at worse) or be dated with a future date (at best). While 2044 weaponry is no more advanced than today (in fact, it’s gone backwards, again leaving the viewer to wonder what happened between 2012 and 2044), drugs are no longer snorted or smoked or injected, but rather dropped into the eye in liquid form. Oh, and altering a body in 2044 has some interesting affects on the 2074 version of that body.
Johnson also deftly handles the time-travel aspect of the tale. While the travel is not the main draw, it’s still an integral part of the story (and critical to character motivation), and keeping it as linear as possible requires solid storytelling. Unlike Robert Zemeckis, whose Back to the Future II was very convoluted, Johnson has the advantage of two different people playing the same character in two different locations and times (Gordon-Levitt in 2044 United States and Bruce Willis in 2074 Shanghai) to help with clarity.
Two actors playing the same character is one of two evils from which Rian Johnson had to choose. To have one actor play both roles runs the risk of having aging makeup look bad or having camera trickery to get both versions of the character in the same scene look obvious. But to me, that is the lesser evil. The greater evil, the choice Johnson made, was to have two different actors play Joe. If the actors already look closely enough alike, it can work (see Gary Hershberger play a young Robert Redford in Sneakers). But when they don’t look closely enough alike, and when the younger actor is made up in an attempt to look like what the older actor looked like as a younger man, and when we already know what the older actor looked like as a younger man because he was a star when he was a younger man, well, you get the point. Gordon-Levitt, a fine actor who has proven himself worthy of this type of role, looks like he is a distant relative of a young Willis who is trying to imitate a young Willis, and by “trying to imitate” I mean he squints a lot, which I don’t remember Wills doing, and I’ve been following Willis since Moonlighting and the Seagrams Golden Wine Coolers commercials.
But despite the fact that the film’s top bill is also its weak link, Looper works very well. Its success is anchored by its own construct and execution, with all deserved kudos going to Johnson for that. It is smart enough to avoid cliches and pitfalls, but not so smart as to be too clever by half. It is sci-fi without getting lost in science. It’s an action movie that maximizes the action by not over-maximizing the action; every chase or shootout or thrill is efficient and serves to advance the story, and is never gratuitous for the sake of gratuity.
The film is also aided by standout supporting performances. Bruce Willis, for the action movie career he has had, fits so comfortably in the role of Old Joe – a man so in love that he would travel through time and kill children (another area of the film delicately handled by Johnson) not to save all of mankind, but to save the woman who saved his soul. Emily Blunt turns in a sold performance as the mother of one of the three children Old Joe is looking for. Her son, age five-ish, is prone to violent mood swings, and she must not only manage this, but also determine Joe’s true intentions and protect her son from Old Joe. While she’s certainly no Ripley (from the Alien franchise), she is no damsel in distress either. As for her son, his name is Cid, and he is played by Pierce Gagnon, and I loved every minute he was on screen, particularly when he was transitioning from angry to sedate.
I’m certainly not one to give away the ending of a film, but what I will say is that while the end of Looper was one possible outcome that I thought might happen, the way that it got there in the third act was as smart and refreshing as the rest of the film.