Twice in Rian Johnson's richly visualised and conceptually laden film do his characters make reference to time out explaining the mechanics of time-travel as being, quite literally, a waste of time; it's a maddeningly transparent carte-blanche to play vast and loose with twisty sci-fi narrative, whilst simultaneously, cleverly, a wry nose-thumbing at pedants who impassively reject artistic merit on the grounds of illogical thinking. It's a gamble no doubt, but Looper's peppy non-linear storytelling, intricate found-object score from Nathan Johnson, and memorable turns from its stars more than earns its knowing-cool status.
Featuring effective (though not entirely successful in some quarters) prosthetics that lend Gordon-Levitt's Joe Simmons an angular comic-book look, our hero plays a Looper of the title, a freelance assassin in 2044 employed by a criminal conglomerate in 2074 to dispose of the human targets they send back in time to their staff. When the organisation decides to terminate a particular Looper's contract, his future self is returned to the past for elimination - 'closing the loop' it is called - , a rack of gold strapped to his back, and a sacrificial hood covering his head. Then, a bit like McNulty's dismissal party at Kavanagh's, your colleagues help you celebrate your retirement as you look forward to thirty years uninterrupted partying, before your pre-planned demise. Interestingly, Johnson has Joe played as more of a morally ambiguous willing participant in the game, rather than a victim of his own Faustian predicament. The urban decay and sociological degradation of 2044 parallels certain 21st century attitudes we might have that involve tying on the blinkers and drinking and dancing our way towards an irreparable end, whilst all around us, things fall apart. Part of Joe's behaviour can contextualised through the character of Abe (Daniels), a '74 mob lieutenant sent back through time and entrusted to regulate the Loopers. There's much of the gruff, advice-dispensing father-figure on display here Daniels has hewn from his character in Sorkin's The Newsroom, and an early scene in particular, in which he softly cajoles Joe to sell out a fellow Looper who allowed his Loop to run, is strangely tender and terrifying.
It's not until when Old-Joe, played by Bruce Willis, turns up to warn his impetuous younger incarnation of personal dangers and salvations that lie ahead, as well of as the emergence of a near-mystic Keyser Söze figure named The Rainmaker - that has taken over organised crime in 2074 and is forcing all Loopers to close their Loops - that the film shifts gear. Willis is one of a handful of actors who is becoming eminently watchable in their eventidal years. His portrayal of the older Joe has a visible weight of regret and weariness behind the eyes, but the heightened senses that made him so good at what he did are still there too; in his scenes confronting Gordon-Levitt, it's fifty-fifty whether he's going to nod off for a snooze or disarm his opponent in one fluid feline movement.
The film's second half thus becomes something of a chase movie, in which Old-Joe seeks to kill The Rainmaker as a child, whilst Young-Joe scrabbles to put the pieces together to make some kind of sense of his own fate as well as the situation unfolding around him. If Johnson's film has an ace up its sleeve, it's to disguise and repackage the derivative into something fresh and arresting. We are aware of familiar tropes even if we choose to go along for the ride. Ignoring these kinds of distractions is something I have previously discussed, and here serves as a testament to the ingenuity of the movie. A strong familial message rears its head with the emergence of Cid, the future Rainmaker, and her mother Sara (Emily Blunt) who believes her son's wayward telekinesis can be anchored and controlled if he's allowed to live, and this ties in neatly with Looper's central conceit of fatalism versus free will.
That Looper ultimately falls short of the balls-to-the-wall, indie-weird sci-fi it might have promised is not to detract one iota from its magnificent pacing and ideology. At the very least, it's comparable with the genius and wonder of sci-fi gone before and embraces rather than undoes its inspirational parentage.