Director Rian Johnson began his career with the language-muddling high school film noir Brick, before moving on to the con-man film The Brothers Bloom, yet his third film, arguably his best, is a science fiction time-travel action film called Looper. Creating an original, but familiar location of near-future Earth, Johnson is able to place interesting characters with a complex time travel story line and let the audience go along for the ride.
In the year 2044 time travel has not yet been invented, but thirty years later it will have been. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper, a man hired to assassinate troublesome enemies of criminal gangs in 2074. These men are transported back in time with silver attached to their backs, are killed by the loopers and disposed of. While it is a lucrative career, there is one downside, Loopers are expected to 'close the loop' by assassinating themselves. At this point they are given a huge payout and are effectively retired, left to enjoy the remaining 30 years of their life. When Joe's future self (Bruce Willis) appears before young Joe, he hesitates to kill him, allowing him to escape and forces the younger self to track down the older self and kill him before the leader of the loopers, Abe (Jeff Daniels) finds him. The chase leads the two men to a remote farm, the home to Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), where they must finally sort out the ever-growing list of potential paradoxes.
Looper as a science fiction film is innovative while riddled with pastiche. There are nods to previous classics in the genre, and while many have compared it to The Matrix, it is actually more akin to The Terminator. There is time travel, a seemingly convoluted plot to assassinate and defend and a potentially unstoppable killer at it's core. Yet Willis/Gordon-Levitt are a better pair than Schwarzenegger/Biehn and the plot allows for a neat summary at the end, to avoid any potential sequel issues. It's nice for a modern film not to immediately play for a sequel with a cliffhanger ending and Johnson's script is almost wipe-clean in its conclusion.
The cast are uniformly excellent and Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (with a ridiculous prosthetic nose that is a little distracting) are as good as you would imagine. It is however, Bruce Willis who is the stand-out. It's been a long time since Willis has had to show any range, and while he gets to show-off his action chops in a series of scenes that will delight fans of Die Hard, it is in the more emotional scenes that he excels. In fact after the barmy opening act, Looper is strongest when engaging in the depth of character on display.
Looper doesn't just rest on engaging characters and dialogue though and the action scenes walk the line between slick and cool gun fights and visceral horror gore and violence. In an early scene when another old looper avoids execution, the methods used to bring him to 'justice' are horrific and more at home in a slasher horror. It is this edge-of-your-seat, adrenaline-fueled mayhem that gives Looper it's edge and allows the character development to ground it, while simultaneously allowing the plot not to stall. It's a masterful balancing act by Johnson and his team.
Looper is an exciting, original-yet-familiar science fiction action film that is likely to become more and more popular with age. The term 'Cult Classic' is often applied to low-budget films that were passed by on their original runs, but Looper has all the hallmarks of a film that will transcend this status and become a true modern classic. While a lot of science fiction films are all flashy effects and no soul, Looper bucks the trend and delivers something slick, but with a heart of emotion. Just don't ask about the time travel paradoxes or you'll be stuck in a diner for hours, making charts out of straws.
Rating: * * * * *