I went to Looper expecting to just get all swoony about Joe Gordon-Levitt like I did after Premium Rush; instead I spent a lot of the time mulling over the odd fact that Bruce Willis has been in a heck of a lot of interesting movies for a one-note actor. It happens that I'm just like a lot of other people and like that one note, but it's only when you run over all the other stuff that you realised how many holidays Bruce has taken from smirking and wisecracking. For starters, he's been in the only other recent time travel movie to make much money, Twelve Monkeys. Bruce is better in Twelve Monkeys, which is a glorious mess, like most Terry Gilliam movies. Rian Johnson hasn't got the track record or the license to go nuts that Gilliam had by the time he made Twelve Monkeys, so his mess is more low-key and hardbitten than Gilliam's.
Still a pretty good mess. Like Brick, and indeed anything else I've seen Joe carry, it's a thinking person's movie which has just enough action and danger in it to give the actors something to think about and the audience a good reason to care which way the action pans out. Joe is in familiar country here; Rian Johnson directed his breakout role in Brick, and Jeff Daniels, hiding behind a beard once more here, played his mentor and only real friend in The Lookout, a movie I ought to have written up when I watched it last month. I liked it that no real effort is ever made to explain time travel, how it works or what its limitations are; the pull quote up there in the title is from Bruce Willis' response to a half hearted question about the topic; Jeff Daniels gets the even pithier "It'll fry your brain like an egg." It exists, it seems to be be one-way only, and that's your lot. The use it's put to is completely bananas, but then again if you'd told me thirty years ago that the biggest use of lasers by volume in 2012 would have been domestic video playback, I'd have kept laughing until some time last week.
So, the future has time travel and the only use they've been able to think of putting it to is sending murder victims into the past to be murdered where it's easier to hide a body. Apparently it's crazy hard to hide a body in the future, but somehow easy enough to orchestrate a system where people will wait thirty years in the past for a guy to show up bound and gagged in a vacant lot and then just blow his brains out (why not shoot him before you send him back? Why not - since you can send him back to a precise time and place - send him back in time into a volcano or the Marianas trench? Because then Rian Johnson wouldn't have had a movie!) Joe Gordon-Levitt plays a character conveniently named Joe, who has the apparently (for no good reason I could think of) highly paid job of putting the schwack on these poor schmoes. From what we can see of 2042 Kansas, which is Joe's present day, this is by no means the worst job on offer. Rian Johnson's vision of the US thirty years from now is pretty bleak. Not only is the place full of apparently homicidal vagrants, but there haven't been any new car models since oh, about five years from now at a guess. Upside, Apple is apparently bankrupt, probably because it doesn't look as if there are enough rich people to buy their computers and phones any more. Anyhow, Kansas looks like Wichita crossed with Mogadishu and cyberpunk Hong Kong (but that last only at night; in daylight, it's just a dump; it looks like the bits of Albuquerque where we see people selling meth in Breaking Bad.) It's not a fun place. Which appears to have made it ripe for Jeff Daniels to come from back from the future to orchestrate the whole dumping the bodies in Kansas scenario, and - since that's not exactly difficult and he's a man from the future with time on his hands - take over the entire Kansas criminal underworld. A task, which as Joe wryly observes, would have been impressive if he'd carried it off just about anywhere else.
Joe and all the other guys who do all this killing are referred to as Loopers. (I was at a loss then and now to figure out why they needed so all-fired many of them; just how many people in the future need that much murdering, for goodness sake?). Because? Because the criminals of the future make a point of killing all their hired killers before they have any chance of talking to the authorities, and they do this by sending the thirty years older criminals into the past to be killed by their younger selves. A service for which they pay a huge premium, as a weird death in service benefit. (I could see this happening about three times, tops, before it occurred to the future criminals that they could save a fortune in severance pay by sending the future killers back to be killed by completely different killers). Like a lot of the plot holes around which this movie forms a net, this is something we have in the plot because it creates a cool problem for the protagonist rather than because it makes an atom of sense. Joe is a ruthless killer, and sooner or later he will have to kill his own future self "closing his loop" as the narrative puts it. Or, since this is movie world, not killing himself and then trying to cope with the fallout.
In the first act of the movie, Johnson sketches in the ground rules, showing us what the workflow is for a Looper and then showing us just how seriously the men in charge take it when someone fails to close the loop. Joe's best friend Seth, played by perma-doomed utility indie actor Paul Dano, fails to pull the trigger on his future self when he's bagged back to him, and dies horribly (though imaginatively) in the man-hunt that follows. (Not covered; how the blue blazes the powers that be figure out that the trigger hasn't been pulled). So when Joe finds himself facing his own future self, the audience has a pretty good sense of the world of hurt he's looking at right now if he doesn't cut off his own life thirty years from now.
Joe's future self is played by Bruce Willis, which among other things required Joe to putty up his nose and put on contacts so that he wouldn't look ridiculously unlike Bruce. The fact that Joe can actually get a performance past the prosthetics and the fact that he's essentially trying to play the younger, stupider version of Bruce Willis - well, the guy's just that good, that's all. Bruce is in Bruce setting two, the one he used in RED; strong, silent, deadly and world weary. It pretty much works, because in the middle of the movie we see a clever montage of how Joe evolves from Joe Gordon Levitt's young unreflective idiot to Bruce Willis' older, wiser and infinitely more dangerous operator.
There's a bunch more plot - including the news that the 2072 future is even worse than 2042 and has a huge villain in it who must be stopped by the traditional murder him as a child method -, and a lot of messing about with what happens if people jump backwards in time, and it all ends in a satisfying though far from cheery way. But my word, it's a mess of plot holes. What makes them really noticeable is that there's such a lot of intelligence on display; when Bruce and Joe finally confront each other, Bruce's world weary explanation of why he can't remember what his younger self did is so believable and clever, I found myself wondering why there were so many other missing sensible explanations. Everyone knew better, and yet didn't do their housekeeping. Look at the ending of the movie and ask yourself how some aspects of the action just get erased by the fact that a character died - and thus couldn't do all the things that their future version has just done - and other aspects of the exact same character's actions persist. Maybe there's a director's cut on the DVD which will make sense of that.
And in fun news for people who like their time travel movies to be full of people who've done time travel movies, Garret Dillahunt is in Looper. He played a deeply creepy robot from the future in the short-lived Sarah Connor Chronicles (also starring Lena Headey, Summer Glau, and my favourite line in any Terminator related product ever "No, it belongs to the guy I killed and stuffed in the trunk."). In Looper he's actually playing someone quite sweet and decent, and I almost didn't recognise him until he pulled a gun on a five year old.
Anyhow; Looper; not as amazing as you might have hoped, not as good as Joe's best work, but pretty darned good all the same if you can somehow switch off any part of your brain which would otherwise say "Hang, on, this doesn't make any sense."