Looper unfolds in a future that hasn’t quite worked out as we’d hoped. Sure, we get hoverbikes, but they’re slow and difficult to start; those with superpowers haven’t got much past making coins levitate; the masses huddle in cramped and filthy streets. Time travel was made possible, only to be seized upon by criminals and immediately outlawed by the authorities. Now timecops – “loopers”, in this update – dispense shotgun blasts to those shuttling through the ether, with nothing much more to expect, at the end of their 30-year career cycle, than to be similarly blown away by their younger selves, the state’s way of cleaning up this particular mess.
Our hero Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, his boyish looks obscured by make-up for reasons that eventually become clear) is as efficient a looper as there is, but his sadness sits closer to the surface. He spends his blood money on numbing drugs – taken optically, as though to wash out everything he’s seen – and clings romantically to a French dictionary, in the hope of someday getting to Paris. Then, on the outskirts of a Kansas cornfield, Joe is confronted not with another disposable ne’er-do-well, but his older self, who refuses to lay down in the anticipated manner. See, Joe’s more of a fighter than he realises – so much so that his older self is played by that warhorse Bruce Willis.
Looper proceeds in constantly surprising directions, introducing its leads in unexpected places, and then choosing to spend quality time with its characters instead of setting them to running about. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s debut was the noiry, too-cool-for-school Brick; here, the complications lurk in the emotions, not the science. At the film’s heart is a diner scene in which Willis, still reeling from his wife’s death, refuses to lay out the technicalities of time travel, and instead tells his younger self “I can remember what you do after you do it, and it hurts.” The result turns out to be less like The Matrix than what James Cameron aimed for on The Terminator, with elements of Twelve Monkeys, the recent The Adjustment Bureau and Ashton Kutcher’s weirdly affecting The Butterfly Effect.
Brick was cast for its faces; Looper goes for gut feelings, a decision that pays off handsomely. The career progression of Gordon-Levitt – one of current Hollywood’s few young male leads to be capable of transmitting sustained sentient thought – remains clear and thrilling: if The Dark Knight Rises suggested his destiny was to assume the mantle of action hero, here he actually gets to impersonate one. Yet pitting him against Willis points up how much Young Joe is still a callow, self-absorbed kid: after being taken in by a stressed single mother (Emily Blunt, tougher than TheAdjustment Bureau allowed her), with concerns more immediate than working out her future, he’s even shown sucking on a baby’s bottle.
It’s rare to see a mainstream American film that dares to point out its target audience might still have much to learn, but this critical stance goes towards making Looper an oddly profound, even moving fantasia about parenting and ageing, and the advantage movies have over real life: that one’s older and younger selves can be linked with a cut, or a look, or prosthetic make-up, and set in dialogue with one another. (The fantasy isn’t limited to self-improving young directors: see also the Alec Baldwin-Jesse Eisenberg business in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love.) That Looper also counts as the year’s smartest popcorn flick, with chases, explosions and men in supercool coats pointing big guns at Bruce Willis, is almost secondary.
Looper opens in cinemas nationwide today.