The release of Christopher Nolan’s Inception in 2010 left the landscape of the action-thriller genre irrevocably changed. Despite its oddly sterile characters and environments, the film’s sleek cerebral plotting and brain-bending, complex theorisations about time showed that blockbuster audiences don’t have to be patronised to be entertained. As Hollywood tries to catch up with the Nolan mind-set, a slew of equally high-concept but never-quite-as-intelligent action thrillers have followed, with films like Source Code yapping somewhat successfully at the heels of the new breed of action movie.
Enter Looper, a film with a concept so high that you’d need a ladder just to reach it. Set in a dystopian future which owes more than a little debt to Blade Runner, the film follows a hit man (played by a surprisingly gnarled looking Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose mob’s contract-killings are sent from the future; this means that Levitt is essentially shooting people who never existed. Time travel is yet to be invented in Levitt’s present (it will be invented thirty years into the future) so there is no way of knowing what the future holds. The final act of the hit men, who are the ‘loopers’ of the title, is to shoot their own selves. Once the mob has no need of them, they are sent back in time to be disposed of as just another contract to be taken care of. But things become more complicated for Levitt when his future self, Bruce Willis, is sent back and escapes. The hunt is then on for Levitt to track down and kill, well, himself.
The type of complexities which characterised Inception are more than apparent in the plot of Looper, and its high-octane trailer may fool cinema-goers into thinking that they are going to see a derivative of earlier films. But the truth is that behind Looper’s action-centric promotion lies a character-driven story with an embittered and cynical core. Much like his 2005 cult hit Brick, director Rian Johnson has clearly built the film upon a love of film noir. The dialogue bristles with an almost hard-boiled wit; the settings are dirty diners and rundown back alleys, and no character comes across as particularly likeable. Even the most sympathetic of characters have questionable moral codes.
But Looper is far from a pastiche. It self-consciously places itself in the noir tradition in order to distance itself somewhat from the more traditional action movie and to achieve an emotional depth. Where Inception mainly used its premise as the backdrop to a series of inventive action sequences, Looper employs its central idea to examine how the indulgences of youth affect all of the older versions of ourselves. Conversations between Levitt and Willis are a joy, as the older self tries to convince his younger counterpart to see sense and change his ways. The film takes that age-old question, ‘what advice would you give to your younger self?’, very literally and comes to the conclusion that your younger self wouldn’t care what you have to say anyway.
It’s this outward cynicism that feels like a real selling point for Looper, separating it from the uplifting Hollywood norm. On occasion, it’s difficult not to get the feeling that the director only wants to focus on the human-interest story, leaving the action sequences somewhat forced and redundant. This hampers the finale, which, without giving too much away, becomes packed with a little bit too much sci-fi silliness as it struggles to find a denouement to its mainly quiet story. This doesn’t stop the film being a worthwhile watch though. In the age of the Inception clone, Looper takes what could be an adrenaline-fuelled action flick and runs in the completely opposite direction with it. That is something to be admired.