Looper Movie Review

Looper is one of the most underrated movies of 2012.

by Casimir Harlow
Movies & TV Review


Looper Movie Review

Three weeks into its release and, if you haven’t seen Looper yet, then you really should before it’s too late. The following review has been amended to include a more spoilerific addendum. Those who have not seen the movie shouldn’t be too concerned, the key passage has been clearly marked towards the end of the review; those who have seen it now have the opportunity to delve deeper into the many interesting twists and turns that this movie has to offer.

“Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been.”

Last year I fell in love with Drive. This year – after the ensemble excellence of Avengers – we got the mostly convoluted inconsequence of the disappointing Prometheus and the punchy but flawed conclusion to Nolan’s Dark Knight Saga. Thankfully, with the glut of Summer Blockbusters now at its end, great movies have once again started to appear on the horizon. I was blown away (literally) by Dredd, and am keenly anticipating a return to form for Craig’s Bond in October’s Skyfall. Looper, however, was tipped to top them all, with rave preview reviews calling it the best sci-fi movie since Moon; the best time-travel movie since 12 Monkeys; and one of the best movies of 2012. They’re not wrong, but these statements are somewhat misleading. It’s more complicated than that. Much more complicated. So complicated, in fact, that what I propose to do is offer up something of a teaser review, which will hopefully whet your appetite in anticipation of the film’s full release later this week, and prepare the way for an ensuing, and more comprehensive read once more people have seen it. If I can give you one piece of advice – don’t underestimate this movie.

Set in 2042, we find ourselves following the 25-year-old ‘Looper’ assassin, Joseph Simmons, who lives a lavish lifestyle and has a fairly simple job: he has to execute targets sent back in time by his Mafia bosses 30 years in future. They appear before him, with a shroud over their heads, hands tied behind their backs, and kneeling – all he has to do is pull the trigger. Job done. However the Loopers all know that their own days are numbered as, one day, the person who will appear before them will be themselves. The trouble comes if you don’t kill yourself, as Joseph soon finds out.

“I work as a specialised assassin in an outfit called the Loopers. When my organisation from the future wants someone to die, they zap them back to me and I eliminate the target from the future. The only rule is: never let your target escape... even if your target is you.”

Right from the opening scene this film has you hooked. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – looking slightly different (they used prosthetics to make his nose and face more in-line with what you would expect from a young Bruce Willis), is out in the fields killing people. He has an old pocket-watch; every kill is timed to perfection. He spends his nights getting high – eye-drop drugs are the latest craze – and trying, unsuccessfully, to woo his favourite prostitute into quitting her profession.

When his older self turns up, everything gets spun on its head. We get to see – in a sort of flash-forward /flashback combo – how his older self (who in that flashback evolves, rather unconvincingly, from Gordon-Levitt into Bruce Willis) came into existence and what made him decide to change the course of the past in an attempt to change his own future. Confused? Well, don’t be. It’ll all make sense – at least this part will.

This main premise, however, is far from the end of the story. The premise is little more than a great excuse for some interesting action set-pieces; some cross-cutting between the two viewpoints of young and old Joe (Gordon-Levitt and Willis, respectively); and some witty exchanges between the two of them – in one scene, rather amusingly throwing us a curveball by completely dismissing the opportunity to provide an explanation as to the whole time-travel ‘logic’. It’s a good move to make: less is most definitely more. Yet beyond this premise is where the near-genius of Looper lies.

We’re taken on a journey involving a tortured hero, who has to do some heinous things because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. Did I mention the near-genius of the ideas on offer here? Well, it’s tragic, near-genius – if you think that being a young, highly-paid assassin could give you psychological trauma, you wait until you see what happens to the same guy thirty years down the line. To say more would be to risk entering spoiler territory but, suffice to say, there’s plenty more on offer than just what you see in the trailer.

Of course the acting is across-the-board good, with sparks of great thrown in there. Gordon-Levitt certainly gets to prove his leading man chops in this sci-fi-action-thriller. He may have had an early career opportunity to headline a movie – very impressive as the gritty young anti-hero of Brick, the stunning ultra-neo-noir debut from Looper’s writer/director, Rian Johnson – but he’s largely been relegated to supporting and/or co-starring roles ever since (Inception, 500 Days of Summer, Dark Knight Rises). Here he is most certainly the star.

Whilst his dramatic acting mettle is seldom really put to the test here, and whilst the prosthetic enhancements don’t really fully convince us that he could be a younger Willis (especially since we know what Willis looked like when he was in his late 20s – the same, just with more hair!) his performance skills are still impressive. In much the same way that John Travolta was very good at acting like Nicolas Cage in Face/Off, Gordon-Levitt does a great job at acting like Bruce Willis. It may not be readily apparent during their scenes together, but there are plenty of earlier moments where Gordon-Levitt smiles dismissively, replies sarcastically, or just gives a trademark look that simply epitomises everything iconic about Willis after 25 years of making movies. It’s more impressive when you consider that it can’t be all that easy to impersonate Bruce Willis. Remember, we’re not talking parody here – he’s not dressing up in a dirty vest and shooting his way, barefoot, through a sky-scraper – we’re talking about acting like Bruce Willis.

Support comes from the least expected corners and from the least expected people – There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano manages to evoke sympathy as Joe’s fellow Looper and friend, who makes the one mistake a Looper cannot afford to make; Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly, The Prestige) shows us a refreshingly grungier side to her previously lightweight talents; and Jeff Daniels (Speed) makes for a surprisingly menacing crime boss who is capable of scaring the hell out of you just by talking to you. It’s a great assembly because almost all the actors – up to and including go-to-psycho-villain, Garret Dillahunt (Deadwood, Last House on the Left) – are cast in ways where you don’t quite know what to expect from their characters.

Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) is probably the only one not to play against-type, but she too is a welcome addition, playing the kind of outwardly feisty, inwardly vulnerable, and irrepressibly gorgeous female character that she’s usually known for. Actually, she has done one thing differently for this movie – chopped a few logs – and it shows in her biceps too!

Ironically, although Gordon-Levitt is clearly the star, and undeniably the focus of this piece, it’s actually Willis who gets the best scenes, and gets the opportunity within them to showcase a far broader range than we’re normally used to from him. Whether it’s the briefest of flashback moments, or the haunting pain that they bring forth; whether it’s the burning nausea, or the horror within that comes as a result of his very necessary actions; Willis wears his emotions more visibly than John McClane ever would, but still has a great steely determination to do whatever it takes. Whether it’s the moment where he’s desperately trying to cling on to the ever-fading memory of the woman he loves, or the film’s most controversial scene, where he determines to – and does – what he feels is necessary to save a great deal of people in the future (including his wife, just so as not to rule selfishness out of the equation). These are things you probably never expected Willis to do; never even expected him to be capable of. It’s his finest work in years.

Not to let the side down, or disappoint on certain expectations, he also gets all the best action moments too, injecting a little bit of humour and more than a lot of drive into these very cool sequences. Indeed when you think back to the fact that the best drama and best action goes to this guy, you’ll be even more surprised when you realise just how little he is actually in the movie.

Those familiar with Brick might have been worried by the notion of Rian Johnson taking his hand to a grandstanding sci-fi action-thriller, but, rest assured, this is far more Children of Men than Total Recall 2012 in its depiction of the future, and Johnson has brought all of the tricks in his Brick playbook with him. Indeed, with a restrictive budget of just $60 million, he again goes for the distinct less-is-more motif, attempting to portray a future which doesn’t actually look all that different from today. Taking us through gorgeous landscape shots of Midwestern vistas, Johnson shows a future where the best you could probably hope for is a little farm out in the middle of nowhere. Nobodies wants to live in the dirty, polluted and crime-infested cities.

Technology may have advanced – mobile phones are wafer-thin; you don’t type on keyboards, you type in thin air, with light-sensors beneath to pick up on your finger movements; and there is the occasional hoverbike thrown in amidst all the beat-up nineties vehicles – but the cities still offer up a refreshingly industrial setting; all steel and smog; dirt and chaos. Threats lurking in every shadow. Some might feel underwhelmed by the future-which-looks-the-same, but it’s not only much more realistic, but also much more fitting to the narrative.

There’s a wonderfully claustrophobic feel generated by this environment as well; the merciless, oppressive surroundings is just poised ready to close in and swallow you up if you don’t keep on your toes – keep moving. Nothing feels safe – not for the rich crooks and certainly not for the impoverished multitude. If you’re on the run then you’re on your own, and you’ve likely got nowhere to hide.

We’re not spoon-fed the narrative, instead events happen, and we build up a picture in our minds and use that information to fuel the ensuing tension. For example, rather than have the lead character narrate to us what would happen if he were to fail to kill his target, we get to see just what happens to somebody else – thus when the lead character is put in the same situation, we feel the tension; we feel the walls closing in around him; and we know what will happen if his enemies catch up with him.

Stylistically Johnson messes with your mind, happy to throw back and forth on the time-line, and you just have to go with it in the full knowledge that it will mostly become clear in the end. Keeping a track of the time-travel twists and non-linear ramifications isn’t difficult – it won’t give you the brainfreeze of Inception – but it does have a pleasant intelligence to it, and, after the credits have rolled, will have you warmly puzzling over the different iterations and the temporal paradoxes in a very satisfying fashion.

This is one of the four most adult movies I’ve seen this year – all in succession and all out in the same month(!) – Dredd, Lawless, Looper and Kill Them Softly. Although not wearing the same 18 Certificate as the others, this is still clearly R-Rated material. More important than the violence, however, is the dark story, which is definitely designed for adults. In this environment anybody can die at any point – and their deaths will be harsh and painful and inglorious. It also means that the heroes are far from clean, and pretty firmly in near-irredeemable anti-hero territory. The raw punch certainly helps elevate this film from its teen-targeted brethren; this isn’t just intelligent sci-fi, it’s intelligent, adult, sci-fi – relentlessly dark and bleakly violent.

Of course you can’t go into it expecting the wow-factor of The Matrix, or the lavish big budget effects of Inception – this isn’t a slick, big, sci-fi thriller. Hell, it doesn’t even go for the full steampunk Blade Runner look. It’s far more low-key, and you should expect as much. It’s not necessarily a case of lowering your expectations – it’s a case of expecting the right thing: comparisons to the likes of Children of Men and Moon (or 12 Monkeys and even, as one sharp forumite has pointed out, The Terminator) will fare far more favourably and likely set you up to enjoy this piece rather than wonder why it wasn’t everything that it was cut up to be. Don’t come out of it saying “well, that’s not the next Matrix” – nobody ever said it was going to be, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. It’s no less brilliant though.

Superbly acted, impressively directed and extremely well written, Looper is indeed one of the best movies of 2012. It’s got a fantastic cast; a well thought-out plot which twists and turns through a largely coherent time-travel scenario; dialogue injected with some refreshing wit; and heavy performances from all the least expected directions. It provides two hours of thrills and a bucket-load of surprises, as well as a few excellent action beats. It doesn’t end there, however.

I highly recommend that, at this stage – if you haven’t done so already – you book your tickets and plan to see this as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed and, if you are, well then I’m going to take a big leap and say that you didn’t fully get the ending.

The rest of this review contains mild spoilers – it won’t ruin the film for those who haven’t seen it, but it is really only for those who have seen the previews, or are, at the very least, extremely curious.

Still reading? Just seen the movie? Well, try your best to remember the last shot, and try and think through to the first loop; the first iteration. Looper has the kind of ending which will have you immediately satisfied, then, if you think about it for a little while, be confused and then, if you obsess over it a bit more, have a damn epiphany. And that, right there, is the spark of genius.

I can see why some have struggled with the ending, though, leading to numerous good-but-not-great ratings and reviews, as well as the masterpiece ones. Taken logically – with as much logic as you can hope to apply to a movie about time-travel – the ending introduces a twist that some might think is excellent; some might find deep flaws in; whilst others might clock the flaws but work towards them to create some kind of explanation. Far from being frustrating like the problematic Prometheus, or ending up some kind of flawed science-logic wannabe Source Code, although Looper doesn’t spoon-feed you any clear-cut answers, it does give you a nice sense of brain-frying satisfaction in attempting to figure things out.

Spend a few minutes; an hour – or however long it takes – mulling it over, by yourself or with friends, and hopefully you’ll come to the some decent conclusions. You’ll ask questions like: Does this really stop the endless cycle of violence? and If the Rainmaker was created by them, how did he come into existence in the timeline where they didn’t exist? The questions have no obvious, simple answers, but perhaps that’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t make complete sense, but it has enough room to manoeuvre for it to be possible to make sense.

The director tried his best to come up with a working time-travel system but did, after all, loosely base this on the concept of The Terminator – so problems were inevitable. However, in some candid interviews that he’s given since the movie was released, he’s tried his best to offer some answers, most of which have amounted to: every event that takes place to the younger Joe, has ramifications on the future, which will affect the past as remembered by the older Joe. His memories are changing. That’s the beauty of Looper – it’s ideas are natural and organic and therefore allow us to buy into a time-travel concept which works, for once, because it works on the basis that everything is in flux.

Let this movie sink in and penetrate to the dark recesses of your mind and it might blow it wide open. This is a movie that demands attention, requires feedback, and warrants discussion.

I’ll leave you with one teaser element that the director clearly had in mind when he came up with the idea for Looper – arguably the morality paradigm at the core of the whole drama:

If you had the chance to go back in time and kill Hitler when he was just a child, would you?

Looper review redux. Three weeks’ after release and let’s see whether this has had as big an impact as I’d hoped for. Let's take a look behind the mysteries of one of the best sci-fi movies in years.

Superbly acted, impressively directed and extremely well written, Looper is indeed one of the best movies of 2012. It’s got a fantastic cast; a well thought-out plot which twists and turns through a largely coherent time-travel scenario; dialogue injected with some refreshing wit; and heavy performances from all the least expected directions. It provides two hours of thrills and a bucket-load of surprises, as well as a few excellent action beats. It doesn’t end there, however.

Let this movie sink in and penetrate to the dark recesses of your mind and it might blow it wide open. This is a movie that demands attention, requires feedback, and warrants discussion. It’s a great movie that will make you think, even if you don’t realise it at first.




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