Looper DVD review: Youth vs experience

All things considered, the picnic was not a great success.

2012 | 15 | 114 minutes | £19.99 (DVD)/£24.99 (Blu-ray)
Distributor: Entertainment One UK
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels

It was quite a year for Joseph Gordon-Levitt – a breakthrough year. In The Dark Knight Rises he kinda played the understudy. In Looper, he sorta does the same again. Both performances give you the sense that 25 years from now, we’ll be watching films where //he// is the respected veteran whose standard some up-and-comer is striving to match. Inception suggested as much, of course, but now we know with absolute certainty that this guy is no flash in the pan.

His performance in Looper is the more impressive of the two, because of the technical challenges involved. Gordon-Levitt plays “Looper” Joe Simmons, a hitman whose victims are sent back to him from the future. The latest mark turns out to Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis), who promptly overpowers him and escapes.

It’s not the film you might expect to proceed from that basic premise. This isn’t a chase thriller about a guy hunting down his future self; it’s not long before they’re sitting down together in a diner and discussing the options. What kind of film it is takes a while to become clear… then you realise. It’s basically The Terminator. There’s a guy from the future, a woman called Sarah, and a temporal paradox – all that’s missing is Arnie. There’s a terrible choice to be made, and for understandable reasons, the two Joes find themselves on opposing sides of the fence.

Although the film’s “present” is 2044, it’s not a flashily futuristic world: the odd flying motorbike aside, Looper is very grounded. Ties, books and vinyl records still exist, and wider societal changes are only hinted at. After writer/director Rian Johnson has laid out all his tools, the film makes its home in the timeless environment of an American farm. A few details aside it could be the 1950s. Don’t expect glittering cyberpunk vistas.

That’s arguably a good thing, because it means that there’s little to distract from a string of excellent performances. The interplay between Joes Jr and Sr is a delight, and Gordon-Levitt does a first-rate job of aping his co-star’s mannerisms, both physical and verbal – the frown, the smirk, the soft growl. At times, he’s more Bruce Willis than Bruce WIllis. The three hours’ worth of prosthetics plastered on his face help, although they’re not a total success; your eye is irresistibly drawn to his mysteriously dark eyebrows. It’s as if the DNA mix somehow got contaminated with a few percentage points of Ryland from X-Factor.

Willis himself is more haggard than we’ve seen him before, and it kinda suits him, suggesting the future may hold roles with more gravitas and less firepower. Emily Blunt is strong as an oak as the single mother caught in the middle, and young Pierce Gagnon is downright creepy as her old-beyond-his-years son, Cid.

Time travel tales as knotty as this one inevitably rest on a flimsy foundation of faith: you have to be willing to suspend disbelief, otherwise the whole edifice comes crashing to the ground. Looper just about gets away with it, partly because Johnson doesn’t give us time to question certain details. For example, early on we’re told people are sent back in time to be bumped off because “it’s almost impossible to dispose of bodies” in the future. Why? Did someone un-invent acid? It helps that the script keeps pre-emptively nitpicking itself before the audience has a chance. There are fudges aplenty, but they’re mostly the sort of fudge you can swallow.

Along the way there are glorious action sequences (thankfully, Willis hasn’t hung up the machine gun just yet), and some surreally grisly moments where we see the effects of torture sweeping through the decades. And as you might expect if you’ve seen Johnson’s sublime neo-noir Brick, there’s also a delight in wordplay. This manifests itself both in the terminology of the Looper trade, and in some quotable hardboiled dialogue: “This whole town… big heads, small potatoes” is one choice line; “I’m an arranger, stranger” is another.

The only thing that’s missing is an extra gear. Once it emerges what this story is fundamentally about, you may find yourself expecting one final development – some twist or change of perspective that will turn everything on its head. Sadly, it never comes. But that doesn’t prevent Looper being the best time travel movie of the last decade.


An interesting commentary teams Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt. It’s full of small insights, with the director pointing out where his practical effects have been digitally supplemented, which environments are sets, and which extras are members of his family (his dad played a bodyguard, and is rather good!)

The DVD has two featurettes. “The Future: From The Beginning” (seven minutes) is your usual pre-release promo, pointless after the fact. “Scoring Looper” (16 minutes) splices together three online previews of the score by composer Nathan Johnson, who explains his extensive use of found sound, recording car door slams and treadmills and manipulating them to create drums and keyboards – fascinating stuff. Four extended/deleted scenes (10 minutes) come with optional commentary by Johnson and (since one involves his character) actor Noah Segan. You also get an arty animated trailer.

The Blu-ray (rated) adds three further featurettes, all pretty self-explanatory: “The Science Of Time Travel”; “New Future, Old School” and “The Two Joes”. It also takes the deleted scenes over the half-hour mark by adding another 17 short trims.

Ian Berriman twitter.com/ianberriman

For an alternative perspective, read our Looper review from the theatrical release.
See where Looper came in our Top 25 SF & Fantasy Films Of 2012.
Pit your wits against our Bruce Willis quiz.