When time travel is invented it will be interesting to see which film came close to getting it right.
Looper posits a believable 2044, where economic ruin has left America driving decades-old cars and living in ghetto housing, with the police in the employ of criminal gangs.
Time travel is still 30 years from invention and will be immediately outlawed, leaving entrepreneurial crooks to use it as a way of rubbing out their enemies in a world of Big Brother DNA tagging.
The not-so average Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is an efficient “looper”, reliably disposing of marks sent back for execution and handsomely paid for his services. Being confronted with their future selves is the looper equivalent to a golden handshake and a literal deadline. And letting yourself go free is not an option.
Which puts Joe 2044 in a bind when the definitely not-so average older Joe (Willis) is sent back and busts out, leaving his younger self to close the paradox before the criminal underworld punches his ticket. But, old Joe is on mission of his own to change a terrible future event.
Looper has bags of fun with its premise and literally drags the audience along for the ride.
Johnson presents the most authentic looking “used future” vision since Children Of Men, and shoots the executions in efficiently cool fashion recalling The Godfather or Miller’s Crossing, while using brutal repetition to convey the toll the grisly day job has on Joe.
Just as chilling is a knockout moment when another looper's future self watches in horror as his body swiftly succumbs to decades old torture, reworking the climax to the long-forgotten Dennis Quaid time travel thriller Frequency.
In fact, Looper is so bursting with its own ideas, it is easy to miss how cannily Johnson references other movies.
The paradox of confronting yourself riffs on the equally five star Spanish gem Timecrimes, while Willis’ mission to solve the riddle of the Rainmaker echoes both The Terminator and his own Twelve Monkeys.
A Shanghai sequence reveals the East has fared better in the future than the West, set up in time traveller crime boss Jeff Daniels’ line, “Listen, I’m from the future: go to China”, and a brave second half change of pace takes Joe to an all-American farmhouse, agriculture presumably being the one traditional industry still doing well in future USA.
This second-half shift places Joe in the farmhouse of Sarah (Emily Blunt) and her young son, moving the focus onto a story of redemption and revenge.
The myriad timelines turn Looper into about three different movies, but all is resolved with a satisfying denouement that harks back to the best film noir, pessimistic narration and all.
All of which gives the cast meaty moral dilemmas to chew on, including one so shocking that you wonder how Johnson will use time travel to undo it and then be agape at his choices.
Along the way Johnson permits himself Matrix-y gunfights and Bourne-y chases, suggesting a future franchise gig if he so wishes. And with the explosive climax centered on an “enhanced ability” youngster, that franchise could be the long-delayed live-action version of Akira. Unfortunately, we have no time machine to see if we’re correct.
Gordon-Levitt proves himself the most likeable actor currently working, mustering effortless charisma despite subtle nose and mouth work to bring his face closer to Willis’, while said Bruce adds another brave choice to a surprisingly diverse CV.
A standout scene has the two Joes in a diner complaining how time travel is messing with their minds (literally clouding memories in the case of old Joe) and Johnson neatly answers the question “would the universe end if you came into contact with yourself” by having old Joe sock young Joe in the jaw.
You don’t need a time machine to see the future’s bright for this sci-fi belter.