Looper follows the harrowing tale of a mob clean-up man whose time has clearly come.
Joe is a ‘looper,’ tasked with killing and disposing of targets for the mob of the future. The poor sap is sent back in time, where the looper kills him or her and disposes of the body. When Joe is tasked finally with killing himself, and that older him gets away, he finds himself in trouble with his bosses.
Going in, I was expecting the film to be mostly running and gunning, with a focus on the chase. As genre fans, we’ve been lulled in by a neat concept too many time, just to find that the genre elements are a gimmick, and that they ultimately fade into the background when the action picks up, leaving us with a story that could have been set anywhere, anytime, and still, ultimately, have been the same tale.
This is not so with Looper. The sci-fi here is not gratuitous. It’s a true time-travel story, in that it studies the ways and means of time-travel, but there is more to it than that.
The plot has elements of organized crime, super human powers, and time-machine morality all mixed up together, with the lines connecting them clear and bright, the quandaries stark in their darkness.
At its core, the movie presents us with the classic time-traveler’s dilemma. A man has come back in time with a goal. He wants to save his world in the future through an act in the past. However, the dilemma in this case falls on our protagonist in the ‘past’. ‘Old’ Joe has his goal, and he has no doubts. It’s his younger self who must struggle with the morality of his older self’s actions, and decide whether to help or hinder him, without any direct knowledge of the future.
The story is told from the points-of-view of both versions of Joe, and both are relatable and well-performed. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing young Joe, is the brash and impetuous youth. Street-wise, but drug addled and overridingly confused about his role in his own life. Bruce Willis, playing old Joe, is life-wise. He’s smarter and more talented than his younger self, but he’s also grown obstinate, hardened by the years of rough living, but softened by a momentary and recent romance.
Levitt has the real heavy lifting here, though. Willis is great as always, playing the role as you would expect him to play it, with all the mannerisms and affectations he’s picked up over a lifetime of action films.
There is an excellent scene just after the inciting event, which shows us a montage of the life of old Joe, starting with his murder of his own older self, and moving up through a debaucherous drug-fueled life of crime and terror, brought to a sudden halt by the intervention of a beautiful woman, in his last years before he knew he would have to be sent back to die.
The transition between Levitt and Willis is made here, and we have the character played by Levitt in one moment, age lines added to his face, and hair thinned on top, and then by Willis in the next moment, a bit of a wig to darken and thicken the hair, along with a little bit of smoothing in the face.
If I didn’t know both actors so well, I might not have been able to tell when they switched. It’s not just about good make-up, though, the montage pulls the two Joes together and makes both of their motivations so clear, really solidifying for the audience that these two guys really are the same guy, and that he can be sympathized with at both junctions in his story.
Of course, the time-travel is a bit wonky. It always is. But, it’s mostly consistent here, and that’s the most important thing about any time-travel story is that it established rules and sticks to them, making the paradoxes part of the story, rather than a hole in it.
As much praise as I’m heaping on it, the film is not without its narrative flaws and clear devices. The looper program itself is oddly flawed, as one is left to wonder, since this is essentially a body disposal service, why the mob of the future doesn’t kill the targets before sending them back in time. There are other similar questions to ask, and only some of them are answered, the rest glossed over by a desire to not fill the film with exposition, despite the conclusion being exposited a little too strongly.
These few flaws however, are easily overlooked in the heat of the film, and what shines through is an excellent genre film which takes its audience and subject seriously, while still creating a compelling tale with lots of emotionally charged moments, and no cheap shots or melodrama.
Looper is in theaters now.