As science fiction, “Looper” is a clever action thriller that involves time travel and the possibility of a person hunting his future self. As a human document, though, the movie is rather unpleasant as one character is tracking down and killing children while another seems bent on killing himself.
Writer-director Rian Johnson has worked the whole thing out so this makes sense: You can dramatically justify child killing and suicide. If that’s what you really want to do.
The movie sets up a series of moral equations, which is like imagining, for instance, if you could travel back to the time to when Adolf Hitler was an 8-year-old would you kill the boy? Intriguing conversation material but curiously cold and unsatisfying as drama.
With four name actors playing odd roles — Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels — “Looper” should attract a following nonetheless. You just have to appreciate a movie that contains only villains. There are no heroes in sight.
The movie has a single setting and time period yet comes with two futures. The story ostensibly takes place in 2044 Kansas, which looks more like 1944. Not only is everyone driving 30-year-old cars with nothing new or modern in sight other than a high-tech bike, but Dust Bowl-era blight seems to hover over the farm country.
You’re told in the beginning that time travel doesn’t exist but it will in the future. It’s illegal, however, so only criminals use it to send back people they want to eliminate — only in the past with no incriminating bodies in the present.
Low-level opportunists are hired as “loopers,” men who assassinate these people from the future moments after they’re delivered through a time machine, all trussed up and hooded for easy execution and disposal.
As part of a looper’s contract he knows that someday he may kill his future self, thus “closing his loop” but getting a huge payday. As Looper Joe (Gordon-Levitt) remarks at the outset, loopers are “not the most forward-thinking people.”
This is exactly what does happen to Joe. Only his future self (played by Willis) arrives unhooded and ready for action. He thus escapes, which sets in motion two manhunts: Joe is after Joe and the crime boss who controls all the loopers, Abe (Daniels), sets his “gets” — killers superior to loopers — on a hunt for both Joes.
Joe the Elder is on a mission. Knowing the future (which interestingly enough takes place in Shanghai), he is determined to track down and murder a future villain known only as the Rainman. But, of course, the Rainman back in 2044 is a small boy.
So in an eerie echo from the situation in the original “The Terminator” (1984) Joe is looking for any male child born in a certain hospital on a certain date. Which leads all these characters to an isolated farmhouse where a single mother (Blunt) guards her unusually precocious son Cid (Pierce Gagnon).
So you’ve got psycho assassins, a crime boss, a future tyrant and the mother who will protect him. Did I mention that Joe the Younger is a junkie?
Crime fiction writers from James M. Cain to Elmore Leonard have set their stories among low-lifes and criminals of all sorts, but the trick is to find a moral high ground even so.
“Looper” does so in a manner of speaking as Joe the Elder in 2044 is trying to rectify a terrible situation in 2074. But it’s hard to ask an audience to root for its “good” guy to hunt down and murder young boys (especially knowing that two of the three will be innocent victims).
Harder still to understand is the motivation of Joe the Younger to kill his older self. Sure he wants to impress the mom and maybe get into her pants but is a (sort of) suicide worth it?
Things compound themselves from here in a movie that doesn’t even bother to figure out these two futures and why things have gone so desperately wrong. (You might also wonder why things we have now such as body armor for police aren’t in use in 2044.)
The ideas that percolate in this movie are still the stuff of idle speculation: What if you could go back and kill young Adolf, etc.? Things have been thought through for their moral complexity but without any depth of character.
You watch him react — indeed the role is almost completely reactive other than his determination to protect the Rainman from his future self — without understanding his motives or thought process.
Blunt spends much of her time hacking away at an old tree stump with an axe. Maybe this is a future form of exercise. At least her maternal motives aren’t hard to fathom.
Willis has only one goal in mind but you wonder why he doesn’t seem very savvy about his younger self. Why can’t he anticipate the guy more? Who knows him better?
“Looper” winds up closing the loop on itself rather than its poorly delineated characters. Rian Johnson outsmarts itself by investing its time and energy not in characters but in unbelievable situations. The movie is intriguing enough but not very involving.
Opens: Friday, Sept. 28, 2012 (Columbia Pictures)
Production: Film District, Endgame Entertainment, DMG Entertainment, Ram Bergman Prods.
Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Pierce Gagnon
Director/screenwriter: Rian Johnson
Producers: Ram Bergman, James D. Stern
Executive producers: Douglas E. Hansen, Julie Goldstein, Peter Schlessel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dan Mintz
Director of photography: Steve Yedlin
Production designer: Ed Verreaux
Music: Nathan Johnson
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Bob Ducsay
PG-13 rating, 119 minutes