Films involving the barest mention of time travel are usually problematic. Inevitably, a bunch of arm-chair critics will begin to debate all of the ways the time-travel doesn't and can't work, no doubt worrying about their congealing breakfast burrito in the process.
"Looper", the new film starring Joseph Gordon – Levitt as Joe, a 'Looper' who kills the mob's enemies, seems to embrace all of the possible problems and work with them making them more real in the process.
It's 2074 and time travel has now been banned. But the mob still uses this outlawed technology to send their enemies back from the future to 2074, into the hands of the Loopers who are waiting to execute them. Joe has one standing order; as soon as the victim appears, he is to shoot them and then collect his payment, silver bars attached to the hit's back. In this way, the mob essentially erases all traces of their future enemies. And Joe is well-aware that he will one day be expected to kill himself. When this happens, he can take the gold bars attached to his older self, and try to live a few years as well as possible. But he isn't looking forward to this day.
When Old Joe (Bruce Willis) arrives, he catches his younger self by surprise and escapes. During the intervening years, Old Joe has learned a lot about Cid, the head of the mob. Now that he has been sent back to 2074, he wants to find the younger Cid and correct a lot of bad things before they happen by killing the future mob boss. But young Cid is an orphan, living with and cared for by Sara (Emily Blunt), who will do anything to protect him. Younger Joe is unaware of all of this. He just knows he has to find his older self and avoid the hit men sent by his boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), the local mob boss.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson ("Brick", "The Brothers' Bloom"), "Looper" is a well-made action/ sci-fi hybrid. Both of Johnson's earlier films were good, but flawed. With "Looper", he proves the adage 'third times the charm.'
The sci-fi elements work because they are almost downplayed. Kansas City in 2074 doesn't look a lot different from what it probably looks like now. The cars are a little different, the streets are dirtier and filled with more homeless, the guns are a little different, but with the exception of the whole 'time travel' thing, not much seems to have changed. Because Johnson downplays the elements of the 'future', the future seems more real. Because everything seems more real, our inquisitive minds spend less time thinking about the science and looking for loopholes and we just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Johnson uses an interesting, fairly uncommon narrative technique to get us involved in the story. We spend a significant amount of time with Joe (Gordon – Levitt), getting to know everything about the routines of his life. Then, when Old Joe (Willis) shows up, we spend some time flashing back to his life and what he has learned. After we catch up, the story continues and we start to follow them both. Most films would follow both leads, alternating back and forth, dividing our time and attention. It's a nice way for us to get familiar and comfortable with each before launching into a new phase with both.
Gordon – Levitt is very good as Joe. You get the sense he doesn't really enjoy his job, but given the state of the World, his job allows him a comfort most people don't have. So he does his job willingly and well and turns to Suzie (Piper Perabo), a stripper, for solace and companionship. And he seems to sleepwalk through his life, going from one point to another without much joy or sense of accomplishment. But his survival depends on playing a game and doing whatever possible to keep his bosses happy. And he also knows he will eventually be faced with killing himself. This leads him to face everything with a mild case of skepticism. It is a nice way to add maturity to his character and give him depth.
And the alternative is even worse, so he does what he is good at.
Willis' Old Joe doesn't have a lot of dialogue and spends most of the film in action. This allows us to fill in some of the blanks as we watch the flashback illustrating his later life. It also allows us to learn with his character. Yes, he has already witnessed a lot, but when he returns to 2074, he learns new information and has to contend with himself as a younger, stronger, less mature man. He has to assimilate the new information before he makes a mistake. In these moments, we watch how he reacts, we watch as he learns and we learn with him.
The flashback illustrating Joe's life from 2074 forward is particularly interesting and adds a lot to the overall story.
Emily Blunt plays Suzie, a woman who cares for and tries to tame a young boy named Cid. She plays the role with such earnestness, you almost forget about the sci-fi universe she inhabits, even when 'sci-fi' things are happening. She has adopted this child, she is his mother, and she won't let anything happen to him.
Jeff Daniels plays Abe, the local crime boss sent back from the future to keep an eye on things. It is a nice a-typical performance for the actor. He appears to be the same affable guy, but beneath all of the good-nature lives a very deep level of menace and danger. Every moment he appears on screen you feel he could snap at any point. When this pattern is established, we simply wait for the moment. This anticipation creates a high level of suspense.
Paul Dano is also good as Seth, Joe's friend and a fellow Looper. His story provides a nice illustration of what happens to 'Loopers' when their time has come and helps us realize just how desperate Joe is to avoid the same fate.
"Looper" is surprisingly good and very entertaining.