Reviewed by William Mingin

Looper cover

Loopers are low-rent assassins who, in the year 2044, shoot victims, shackled and hooded, sent back by criminal cartels from thirty years in the future. They take their pay—silver bars—from where it's stored on the victim, and dispose of the body. Eventually the Loopers themselves, if they live so long, are sent back for execution. The younger versions know they've killed themselves—"closed the loop"—when they find payment in gold; they "retire" until their time comes. If a Looper fails to kill his future self, leaving a person from the future free to range around in the present, it's bad for both versions, bad for the criminal organization that runs the operation, both in 2044 and 2074, and even bad, it seems, for the space-time continuum.

The Looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a cool, detached workman, saving up his silver to eventually stop killing and move to France. The calm surface of his life is disrupted first by the dilemma of his only Looper friend, whose older self gets away. Then he confronts his own older self—"Old Joe"—who comes back in time unhooded and unshackled. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) also gets away, and that’s where Young Joe's troubles begin.

But not immediately. There's a reset, or perhaps we're shown an alternate version of reality (it was unclear to me, on one viewing), and Joe is shown killing a hooded, gold-bearing victim. He then lives his life out to where he becomes Old Joe, who had a lot to live for and now has an intense desire to kill the Rainmaker, a future crimelord who has destroyed his life. The Rainmaker has brutally taken over all the criminal cartels in the future ("the five families"; still? After all that time?) and is closing all the Loops—ending the Looper operation with prejudice. He's a monster making the future even more of a hell than it already was . . . er . . . will be. To get his life back, Old Joe needs to kill him preemptively. To do that he needs to evade both Young Joe and the henchmen of Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man from the future running the disposal operation in 2044; both want to set things right by killing him. Meanwhile, Young Joe himself must hide from Abe & co., and does so on a sugar cane farm (in Kansas? A reference to global warming?) run single-handed by Sara (Emily Blunt), who fiercely loves the troubled young son she once abandoned, Cid (a remarkable Pierce Gagnon).

Willis seems to carry the action hero powers he's been endowed with in many other films into this one. For most of the film, he's unstoppable, unbeatable, and invulnerable. No one else has such prowess, so it stands out as almost something imported from another film, even another type of film. He also brings from previous roles immediate audience sympathy. We're used to him being our protagonist. In a way, this supports the film's trajectory. We like Old Joe better than Young Joe: besides being Bruce Willis, he's tougher, smarter, more emotionally involved, has more at stake, and very good motives. Young Joe seems a bit featureless by comparison. But Young Joe's character arc takes him from self-involved and affectless to caring and unselfish, while Old Joe goes from sympathetic avenger trying to right a wrong to a man using a heartfelt end to justify heinous means. The irony of their confrontation is that the young, selfish version is growing into wisdom, an awareness of sacrifice for a greater good, to a great extent because of his exposure to Sara and Cid, while the older version is led by the love he developed for life to betray his own basic decency. Mother and child come to be the measure of morality and the nexus of how good and evil actions play out and resonate through time and people's lives. There are echoes of other time travel films, especially the Terminator series and Twelve Monkeys/La Jetée, and of a classic Twilight Zone episode, but to say more would involve too many spoilers.

The acting is generally good. Leaving it there might seem like a dereliction of critical duty, but there's not much more to say. The actors are polished and professional; they get the job done. Many of them have scenes of great emotional intensity to play, and range from good enough to quite fine. But there's nothing gripping or remarkable or surprising about any of the performances, and perhaps, in an action film, that's about par. Despite Young Joe's low affect through much of the film, Gordon-Levitt is still naturally appealing and engaging, as a heroic lead should be, though his lean, sharp face has been changed somewhat to make him more believable as a young Bruce Willis, leaving him looking a bit like John Garfield. They could have saved the trouble; only through the willing suspension of disbelief can one accept that these men are the same person.

Old Joe, by contrast, does exhibit passion readily, including an angry outburst over a diner breakfast (scrambled eggs and rare steak for both Joes; one wonders how Young lived to become Old). When Young Joe asks him about the intricacies of time travel, and the possibility of anomalies, Old Joe bangs the table in impatient fury, telling him that too much thinking about time travel will fry his brain like an egg. Perhaps the intensity comes directly from writer/director Rian Johnson; it's almost like Willis is speaking for the film, telling us angrily not to think too much about the elements and ideas it presents. But that's precisely what we do. Science fiction is about ideas. But if ideas drew Johnson to the genre, it's because he needed them for a neat story that would "fry your brain" with its twists and puzzles and effects, not to explore them or to extrapolate from them a future world. Science fictional elements are reduced to gimmicks exploited for plot purposes and otherwise are thin on the ground. There's a little superficial SF color: a hovercycle, a drug you put in your eye, futuristic computers. We're meant to understand that the US has experienced, if not a real apocalypse, at least a severe economic and governmental failure, with reference to an anarchic period of "vagrant raids"; poverty is severe, and there's little sign of police or government. But otherwise, there's nothing like the sense of a world different from ours, as in Blade Runner. Hovercycles aside, a pick-up truck looks like it came out of our past. A low-level telekinesis that has manifested in the population always seems extraneous, never an integrated, believable part of the world, merely awaiting its part in the plot, the revolver on the mantel in a house otherwise devoid of guns, waiting to be fired.

As in other science fiction films where the filmmaker doesn't seem particularly committed to the genre, style overwhelms believability and even common sense. Abe's thuggish henchmen are not Loopers but the implausible "Gat Men" (could they have wandered in from Gattaca, that triumph of style over sense?), wielding showy pistols. It’s hard to believe in the resuscitation of the dead slang word, and being armed with revolvers, no matter how large, is quixotic, to say the least, as we see when the Gat Men have to face off against a Bruce Willis armed with two machine pistols (of the special recoilless movie variety that allows them to be fired simultaneously from both hands).

Johnson not only seems uninterested in convincing extrapolation, he seems uninterested in justifying his ideas or making sense of them. The reason why people can't be killed and their bodies disposed of in 2074 is tossed off in a sentence that's hard to catch, but it sounded as if it's because people are chipped or otherwise ID'd. And who enforces this? The government, which has supposedly outlawed time machines but can’t stop criminals from using them? If the criminals can break that law, why can't they kill people? For the Rainmaker to take power in the underworld, he almost certainly had to kill a lot of people. Why can't he kill the people being sent into the past, especially the Loopers? Or why don't the criminals use time travel for other nefarious purposes—for instance, taking over the government? Using something as complex and presumably energy-intensive as a time machine to get rid of captive enemies is like using a rocket ship to shoot your household garbage into the sun.

Even if we buy the time travel, it’s difficult to believe anyone would pay scarce and precious metals to the Loopers to kill the victims. Why not just have normal gang hirelings in 2044—the "Gat Men"—kill them? And why bother to kill the aging Loopers at all? It's all style over substance and sense. We're supposed to believe that the weak-seeming government of this post-apocalyptic era was able to put a stop to the use of time travel (except by criminals), and didn't even keep it for itself. No one anywhere else has developed it or stolen it? This isn't what happens to such technology, no matter how dangerous. Exhibit A: nuclear weapons.

We get little sense of a larger world, of a political system, of a government (no matter how weak), of a society, even, beyond the fantasy gangster world, where there's nothing to interfere with the criminals running around as they please. It's a kind of deprivation we often find in thrillers and action films, where inconvenient aspects of real life, which would bog down the plot or make it impossible, are simply ignored. The action itself takes on the kind of preternatural autonomy and lack of limitation the hero usually displays. Granted that an action-adventure film is not the place to go deeply into science, technology, politics, and economics, there should be some middle ground between a sort of science-fictional Ken Burns miniseries and a film manifesting a ten-year-old's understanding of the world.

Since the science-fictional world and much of the behavior the film presents didn't map with my experience, I couldn't suspend my disbelief of its premise even for a moment. And while the film has a point, it’s not one that needs a science-fictional telling. Perhaps the lesson is, if you don't want people to think about the plausibility of your ideas when watching your film, then make sure the mimetic surface of your fiction passes a fundamental reality test and doesn’t seem limited in a juvenile way. Even escapist films shouldn’t insult our understanding, if only because it ruins the illusion. If one likes action films, Looper is done well enough, on the surface, to be enjoyable to watch; but it's not enjoyable to think about.

Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published two dozen short stories with more forthcoming, and over three hundred nonfiction pieces; he currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. His fiction appeared most recently in Best of Talebones. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book export business.