In the future, time travel has been invented – but it is illegal and only available on the black market. When the mob wants to get rid of someone, they send their target 30 years into the past, where a 'looper' – a hired gun, like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – is waiting to mop up. Joe is getting rich and life is good"¦ until the day the mob decides to 'close the loop,' sending back Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) for assassination.

Time-shifting sci-fi takes its own time to reveal all.

In his 'high-school noir' debut, Brick, US writer-director Rian Johnson revealed an interest in the blending of previously discrete genres to create a new way of telling an otherwise familiar kind of story.

It’s inevitably the good parts you end up taking out of the cinema.

In his third feature (following The Brothers Bloom), Johnson takes a science fiction time travel narrative and mixes it with elements drawn from crime and horror. With a central plot element deriving from The Terminator series, the film is hard to describe as entirely original. What can be said is that Johnson boldly and inventively puts together both its original and derivative parts in a way that previously hasn’t been seen.

Set in Kansas, no doubt in allusion to The Wizard of Oz, the film plays in two time frames, the years 2044 (its present day) and 2077 (its future). The former looks not too different to the way the world looks today. Thirty years into the future from this point, we learn via voiceover, time travel has been invented - mainly used by criminal gangs to get rid of unwanted individuals by sending them back to 2044, where an assassin – known as a 'looper' – dispatches them and gets rid of the evidence. (Apparently it’s too hard to dispose of the corpses in the future – whatever.)

The film’s protagonist is Joe (Joseph Gordon–Levitt), a looper who habitually waits by the side of a corn field waiting to blast away his victims a few seconds after they’ve time-travelled back to him. One day an intended victim (Bruce Willis) manages to escape. If I reveal that he is also named Joe, you can probably guess where this is going, especially if you can recall the central conceit of Chris Marker’s 1962 masterpiece La Jetee and its 1995 Terry Gilliam remake-remodel, Twelve Monkeys (which, of course, starred Willis): that of a young person encountering a time-travelling older version of himself.

There’s a lot more to Looper than this, including a sinisterly amiable crime boss named Abe (wonderfully played by Jeff Daniels as if channeling Christoph Waltz) whose thugs are out to kill young Joe’s best friend (Paul Dano), a looper who dares to disobey orders.

There’s other stuff too, but this is a tricky film to summarise, partly because the plot is so convoluted, but mainly because Johnson takes so long to reveal where it’s all headed. The first half is frustrating and intriguing in equal measure, a blizzard of exposition delivered via voiceover in short scenes that emotionally add up to little. Instead we have a series of firefights and executions that seem intended to look cool without actually doing anything interesting. Its busy-ness seems like a distraction from an absent soul.

Luckily the outlook improves massively when Emily Blunt (in terrific form) enters the frame as a gun-toting corn farmer and mother of a young boy. Finally Looper drops the frantic nihilism and the characters start to register as human beings rather than stick figures being moved around like chess pieces.

Now it becomes clear that plot details laid down earlier to baffling effect do indeed have a purpose – viz. the initially unexploited information that the future has in store a form of telekinesis, or 'TK’, inherited by some individuals via genetic mutation. Ditto the future evil overlord known as The Rainmaker - a seemingly pointless detail finally revealed as a crucial plank of the plot.

You can see a film with a gripping first half and a disappointing finale and hours later you can hardly remember it. On the other hand are films, like this, that start out indifferently yet end up reaching a fiendishly inspiring climax, where it’s inevitably the good parts you end up taking out of the cinema.

Looper may be as flawed as hell – I’ve not even mentioned the near-disastrous miscasting of Willis, who looks absolutely nothing like Levitt (a problem the latter’s distracting make-up does absolutely nothing to lessen) - but it has enough brilliance to get it over the hump.

Related videos


1 hour 58 min
In Cinemas 11 October 2012,