By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Time travel makes sense in Looper because writer-director Rian Johnson keeps it on a short leash, not requiring enough manufactured logic to trip over later. Time travel is illegal, so only criminals have it at their disposal, disposing of enemies. Changing the future affects the past — and vice versa — in a limited realm, so we aren't concerned about loose ends being left loose.
Johnson keeps it simple, yet never stupid. Looper is a puzzle engaging your brain, rather than frying it, as one character describes the process. Obviously he has seen enough movies on the subject by 2024 to know how frustrating that is. This one plays fair with the fantasy.
Time travel won't be invented until 30 years later, and is immediately criminalized for the bad effects it could have. But in 2024 there is a shadow industry of "loopers," hired killers who'll murder whomever the mob sends backward in time for erasure. They can't harm the mob if they never existed, right?
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an ace looper, always on time at the cornfield spot designated for a target to appear, hands bound and head hooded for execution. Killing is his business and business is good, until one day the target turns out to be himself. The older Joe is played by Bruce Willis, and although the two actors bear little resemblance the duality of their dilemmas is fascinating.
Joe knew this day was coming; it's in his contract that his loop can be closed at anytime, with a big payoff and 30 years left to live. But this is sooner than expected, with a new crime lord called the Rainmaker deciding in 2054 that all loopers must die. Old Joe believes he can avert that development by killing the Rainmaker before he grows up. Young Joe is torn between duty and survival, and later his soulmate of now and another of the future.
Got all that straight? Well, Johnson has more chrono-conundrums to follow.
Looper is a tidy, tantalizing neo-noir, with an admirably restrained sci-fi angle. Johnson is always aware of the pitfall of explaining too much, which is coming up with an exception to the rules later. It's easier to remain air-tight when the space being filled is so compact. While a movie like Inception revels in confusion, Looper is content with clarity in a less ambitious fantasy.
Belief hinges upon Gordon-Levitt's subtle impression of Willis, with make-up and digital effects doing some of the work but not all. His nose is flattened and eyes crinkled around the edges of contact lenses yet his slight physical movements — lips curled into a smirk, or warily mumbling — connect Joe to his older self. The charade might crumble when they meet face-to-face but doesn't. From that point Johnson has our full attention, and after the fadeout, our respect.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.