Dir. Rian Johnson, USA, 118 mins, rated 15

Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels

It’s a popular philosophical question: if you could go back in time and kill a young Adolf Hitler, thus preventing some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, would you? Most people with any moral sense would agree that the world would have been a better place had Hitler not been born, or at least not lived long enough to take power. But could you actually shoot a child? And what if you were presented with three children, one of which was the infant Hitler, but you didn’t know which? This is just one of several interesting scenarios explored in Looper, the new time-bending sci-fi thriller from writer-director Rian Johnson.

Looper opens in Kansas in the year 2044. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a special kind of hitman called a looper. His is a relatively skill-free job that involves being in a certain place at a certain time and shooting unarmed and shackled victims and disposing of the corpse – his victims appear, rather oddly, out of thin air, hooded and wrists-bound, with the looper’s payment in silver bricks strapped to their body. It’s not terribly demanding work, but Joe makes a decent living from it, enough to keep a nice loft apartment and drive an antique Mazda MX5. What’s special about the victims is that they have been sent back from the future, the year 2074, where newly invented but strictly outlawed time travel technology has been adopted by organized crime as neat way of making their enemies disappear. And while the job might sound great (to someone lacking in certain moral sensibilities), there’s a catch. At some point the looper will find his fee paid in gold instead of silver. This means that his contract has come to an end, and that the person the looper has just killed is himself, his older self sent from the future. He has, to use the terminology of the time, ‘closed his loop.’

And, soon enough, his next victim-to-be blinks into existence, this time unhooded, and it’s immediately apparent that this is his future self (played by Willis). With seemingly little effort, Future-Joe incapacitates his younger version and takes off, leaving Young-Joe desperate to track him down and take him out before his employer, mob boss Abe (Daniels), can exact a terrible punishment.

Watching the trailer for Looper you could be forgiven for assuming (rather angrily in my case) that in revealing that Bruce Willis was the older version of Gordon-Levitt’s character Joe, the makers had given away an important plot twist. However it quickly becomes apparent that this detail is hardly important at all. Loopers expect to kill their older selves eventually, it’s all part of the deal (and a good way to attract short-term thinkers to the job). What is important is the mission that Future-Joe is on, a mission of revenge against a child who will grow up to be the shadowy crime boss who killed Future-Joe’s wife. This individual is the Rainmaker, a kind of Keyser Soze of the future who, while conducting a reign of bloody terror in his own time, is also busy closing all the loops in the past.

Looper is being compared to several well-respected time travel movies that have come before, such as The Terminator, Back To The Future, and Willis’s own 12 Monkeys, and with good reason. It’s an intelligent, thought-provoking and exciting thriller that, in my opinion, is actually far more daring than those aforementioned classics when it comes to playing with the mechanics of time travel. While this leaves the story open to considerable paradoxes, Looper fearlessly embraces them, and is all the better for it – in particular, the concept of communicating with one’s older self by self-harm is at times intriguing and, in one scene early on in the film, quite horrifying. The strong script is like manna from heaven to such a seasoned cast. Sharing the role of Joe, Gordon-Levitt gives an effective performance that quickly makes you forget the initially disconcerting facial prosthetics, while Willis is back to what he does best (watching him wielding twin machine guns as he rampages with undeniably cool efficiency through a mafia safe house means that maybe Die Hard 5 isn’t such an outlandish prospect after all). And special mention must surely go to child actor Pierce Gagnon, whose performance as Cid – possibly celluloid’s creepiest kid since Damian broke the fourth wall at the end of The Omen – is utterly spellbinding.

Combining big ideas with a not-too-unfamiliar dystopian future setting, and throwing in some hard-hitting scenes of mutilation and child murder to boot, and you’ve got grown-up sci-fi at its best. And if the buzz around the film is anything to go by, the success of Looper is guaranteed to be the only predictable thing about it.

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