Never see a movie about time travel solely for the science fiction; you’ll almost always end up disappointed. Thankfully, Looper has so much more going for it, like an intriguing concept, committed acting and a multi-layered story with heart. It’s all enough to make audiences overlook the rough patches whenever the time travel logic trips over itself.
In the future, crime syndicates employ hitmen known as Loopers to eliminate the targets that are sent back in time from even farther into the future. It’s a lucrative and seemingly easy job since the marks are bound and gagged when they arrive, and provide silver bars as payment. The catch is that the crime syndicate ties up its loose ends by sending back the future version of the Looper to be eliminated by his younger self, thus “closing the loop”. At that point, the Looper retires until the crime syndicate comes after him 30-years-later for elimination.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper who has watched the majority of his Looper friends close their loops. He knows his turn is soon. When the time comes, however, a moment’s distraction gives his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis), enough time to escape – a mistake that the crime syndicate usually punishes with a grisly death. So Joe must find and kill his future self if he hopes to avoid the wrath of his former employers. Meanwhile, Old Joe believes he can affect the future by changing the past, which would spare him the trouble of being sent back in time in the first place. To do that, however, he has to avoid his younger self as well as the Gatmen of the crime syndicate.
Looper operates in between the multiple and the single timeline idea. That means audiences get to watch the timeline where Joe succeeds in killing his future self, Old Joe, as planned. That way Joe can retire as a Looper, grow into Old Joe and then be sent back in time to be eliminated by his younger self, Joe, so the loop can repeat. But when Old Joe changes the past by evading his own hit, has he stepped into a new timeline where any future is possible? Or is he still in the same timeline where nothing he does matters, because truly changing the past to affect the future would mean he would never be sent back in time to change the past. Another wrinkle is that the two selves of a Looper are physically tied, so whatever happens to the young version directly affects the old version. The crime syndicate uses this to their advantage whenever a loop doesn’t close correctly by simply grabbing the young version and chopping off limbs until the old version is convinced to come in for elimination. When they do that, however, how did the old version get away in the first place if he had no legs? Thankfully, just as audiences start mulling over the paradox, Old Joe slams his fist on a table and yells, “I don’t want to talk about time travel shit!” And that’s good enough to keep watching the movie.
Gaps in logic aside, Looper is a story about redemption, conviction and sacrifice wrapped in a time travel gimmick. The gimmick, however, quickly fades into the background as the movie goes on. This could have been a slick and ironic version of The Fugitive full of snazzy contrivances and an utterly predictable plot. Thankfully, the filmmakers took their time to present real characters with tangible bends to their arcs. A few main characters aren’t even introduced until well into the second act, trusting that audiences are engrossed enough to be willing to invest in these new people so late in the film.
Fortunately, the actors were cast very well and they inhabit their roles completely. The heavy lifting is done by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, of course, and his performance here further cements his place as a leading man. He’s fluid and dynamic, and makes smart, yet subtle choices, but what truly elevates his performance is his uncanny portrayal of Bruce Willis. Some moments are better examples than others, but by and large – with the help of good makeup – Gordon-Levitt is completely believable as a younger Willis. Old Joe seems like the perfect role for Bruce Willis, allowing him a nice blend of action coupled with enough drama to showcase his acting chops. In the past, Willis separated himself from his fellow action hero contemporaries because he seemed like an actor first and an action star second. That hasn’t changed, and Willis manages to find the humanity in every scene he’s in. Emily Blunt turns in her usual reliable performance as Sara, who is a mother protecting her child. Blunt proves that when actors are given time to act and relevant words to say, they can elevate the film by orders of magnitude. Finally, special mention goes to Pierce Gagnon as Cid, Sara’s son. While very young for the screen, he comports himself wonderfully and never seems unsure of himself no matter what the scene calls for.
Ultimately, what makes Looper so great is how fully realized its vision is. Vehicles are sufficiently futuristic without being out of reach. Pastimes, like drug use, are so believable and clever that audiences will wonder why those things don’t happen now. Dialogue is poignant. Characters have depth and real motivations. There’s never a moment that’s uninteresting. Looper is a film that will capture the imagination and inspire long talks afterward, reminding audiences that movies can still provide a little magic now and then.