With his third feature Looper director Rian Johnson transitions from indie darling to high-concept-sci-fi-helmer. The film is an ambitious affair with Joseph Gordon Levitt playing Bruce Willis and Bruce Willis playing, well Bruce Willis. The film with its neo-noir styling reminds us of classics from days gone by (think The Terminator, Blade Runner and 70s Spielberg), but it fails to become the rollercoaster ride to do the genre justice.
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Joe. He works as a Looper, which is the name for a futuristic kind of hitman. Existing in 2044, thirty years before the invention of time travel Joe is employed by gangs to assassinate people who have been transported back in time, before disposing of their bodies (bodies which are not known to have existed in the first place). Bruce Willis is also Joe, existing in 2074, during the era of time travel. The trouble comes when Willis’ Joe returns to be killed by his former self and promptly escapes.
The concept sounds convoluted, but Johnson handles it efficiently with an entertaining setup and a succinct voiceover from Gordon-Levitt. The most startling element is Levitt’s bizarre uncanny resemblance to Willis, achieved seemingly with the aid of prosthetics, as well as Gordon-Levitt’s ability to mimic Hollywood action heroes. Johnson also casts Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) as a fellow Looper, who pulls out a familiar, yet entertaining hysterical performance.
Looper becomes somewhat less entertaining in the second act. While searching for Willis, Gordon-Levitt stumbles upon a farm home to Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Daniel (Kamden Beauchamp). In narrative terms these scenes are among the most important in the film, yet there is a feeling of stagnation as Gordon-Levitt’s hunt for Willis decelerates. The dynamic between Gordon-Levitt and Blunt also fails to spark with any great authenticity and their relationship develops in an unconvincing manner.
Simultaneously the relationship between Willis’ Joe and his main love interest emerges simply to motivate the plot, rather than offer any emotional engagement. There is a sense that when the stakes should be at their highest, Looper is actually at its least engaging. Only at its end does Johnson turn Looper around with great effect, engaging us with a tense and spectacularly original showdown.
Jean-Luc Godard famously said: “a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.” With Looper Rian Johnson has created a great beginning and a great end, if only there was a great middle there to close the loop.