Looper is probably the second greatest Bruce Willis time travel movie ever made. The comparison is an unfair one of course; unlike Terry Gilliam’s bleakly apocalyptic Twelve Monkeys, writer-director Rian Johnson’s entertaining blend of The Terminator and – curiously - the western genre has much broader appeal. Simply put, it is an action-packed chase thriller involving both the present and future versions of an assassin (played by Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) battling it out with each other, until Emily Blunt’s arrival around the halfway point when the film throttles back and moves in to darker, more emotional waters. It’s to Johnson’s credit that the switch feels organic, but even as it dishes out the twists and violence while straddling different genres, there’s not much you won’t have seen before.
As explained through a slightly overused voice-over narration, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper, an assassin paid by a criminal organisation to kill unwanted men from 30 years in the future, sent back to his own time. Occasionally the assassin’s own future self is sent back to be killed, a conundrum rewarded with the younger version receiving a hefty pay day and three decades of guaranteed retirement. But when Joe’s older self (Willis) arrives in the past, he manages to escape - forcing both of them to go on the run. Younger Joe soon works out that his future version has arrived with a mission in mind, which may involve Sara (Blunt) and her infant son.
Though the two actors don’t look much alike, Gordon-Levitt successfully suggests a younger version of Willis in his performance (with a little help from the make-up people). You get the chance to compare them side by side in a crucial diner-set scene, as both Joes get bogged down in a conversation about the implications of time travel and how actions in the past may affect the future. Present Joe tries to press a question, but Future Joe retorts that it’s a waste of time even trying to get your head around it (or words to that effect). You can imagine Johnson having the same conversation with the film’s producers; why let a little thing like logic get in the way of fun? So Looper amusingly plays with its timey-wimey plot, particularly early on when a different fugitive from the past tries to escape his own assassin. It’s surprisingly vicious, and destroys any notion that what’s about to unfold is going to be by-the-numbers. Johnson deftly handles the bloody action sequences without resorting to tired gimmicks like slow-motion.
The brutal streak doesn’t end there. Nodding to Henry Fonda’s introduction in Once Upon a Time in the West, Willis’s Joe emerges as a man who will stop at nothing in order to prevent future misery. So far so Terminator, but, instead of a killer cyborg, the unstoppable force from the future is the older version of the man trying to stop him. Where James Cameron’s masterpiece clearly defined the lines between good and evil, here there is little distinction because the same man is on both sides. Which one is right? Both are trying to do what they perceive as being right. It raises the intriguing question of whether age really does bring wisdom, and just how far experience can change someone’s character and perspective down the years.
Yet, while it is a strong and polished piece of work with a clutch of decent ideas, it lacks the pay-off that the film feels like it’s building towards. Without going in to details, the third act fails to live up to the punchy, twisty first; though the conclusion feels appropriate, there’s a nagging sense that something more is waiting just around the corner but never arrives. The slower paced middle section, where Present Joe connects with Sara, also lets some of the suspense ebb away. Still, those caveats aside, Looper is smart, slick and superior entertainment – make the time to catch it.