Rian Johnson is a writer/director who made one of my favourite films of ALL TIME, an indie picture called Brick that I once found in a bargain bin at Blockbuster and am eternally grateful I took the chance because it "had that one girl from Lost in it". He took a very typical story and completely turned it on its head thanks to some extremely clever and layered writing, in addition to some beautiful cinematography and all around great direction.
The film also starred a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who instantly made me a fan due to the insanely good performance he gave in that movie. Up to that point he'd always been "that one kid from that one stupid show about stupid aliens" to me. Since then he has gone on to become one of the hottest actors currently working today, I'd even go as far to say he's the best young actor in the world right now.
Take these two, throw in one of one of my favourite genres (time travel), and add an actor who can deliver an epic performance when properly motivated (Bruce Willis), and you have a movie I've been dying... er, I'm already dead... living? to watch. Mmm, that didn't end well.
Pocket some bars of silver and grab your trusty blunderbuss, it's time for A Ghoul Versus Looper!
Our film opens with Joseph Gordon-Levitt sitting at the edge of a cornfield, trying to learn French from an audio tape. He plays a mafia hitman named Joe, and I'm going to be using his character name because I am NOT typing out Gordon-Levitt a million times here.
He checks his pocket watch, pulling out a funky looking shotgun and standing up in front of a tarp he has laid out on the ground. Suddenly a man appears in front of him, with a bag over his head and his hands tied behind his back. Joe blasts him with the shotgun and kills him.
As he retrieves a bag of silver bars strapped to the corpse's back, he helpfully narrates for us what the hell just happened. Time travel will be invented 30 years from now and subsequently outlawed, but will be used in secret by the largest criminal organizations.
A title card informs us it's Kansas, 2044. Joe tells us it's virtually impossible to get away with murder in the future due to something called “tagging techniques” or something, I don't know. This isn't explained at all, but that's not a complaint like it is for me in most movies. The only important thing is when the mafia needs someone killed, they send them back into the past where they're killed by specialized assassins called “loopers”.
Huh. THAT'S what the mafia uses time travel for? The most powerful thing in the history of ever, and they use it to kill snitches and stool pigeons? That's kind of the dumbest use of time travel since Peggy Sue Got Married. Spoiler: she goes back in time to fix her life which didn't need fixing at all, but hey, at least she learned how to make strudel!
The loopers take their payment of silver bars strapped to the target's back and then get rid of the body, which he see Joe doing. After this he stops for a meal at a small diner where he's a regular, chatting with the friendly waitress Beatrix about his French.
He gets dressed up for a night out on the happening streets of Kansas (we never actually find out what city), picking up his friend Seth along the way. We find out Seth is a telekinetic, but not a very powerful one as he's only able to levitate coins. Joe narrates that 10% of the world's population now has telekinetic powers, which led to absolutely nothing whatsoever. Okay, I guess that's... something? They head to a strip club where the looper headquarters is located, Joe learning a fellow looper named Zach is getting his “loop closed”.
Joe narrates again to explain what this is all about. When a looper signs up for the job they agree that if they're still alive in thirty years the mafia will send them back in time to be killed by themselves, “closing your loop”. They do this because time travel is so illegal in the future the mafia wants to erase all traces of their relationship when they end their contract with them. I just want to say pretty much every bit of bitching I do about this movie will be related to the time travel stuff, which is inevitable in every time travel movie.
This is kind of a general plothole for the entire movie, in 2044 pretty much everyone seems to know about the loopers especially since they go out of their way to advertise their status out in the open. This means there is NO WAY by the time 2074 rolls around the authorities wouldn't know about them and the super illegal time travel going on. Add this to the fact most loopers are a bunch of dumbasses that would be pretty easy to make squeal, and you've got to think the mafia's poorly thought out scheme would be busted by now.
You will know your loop is closed when you kill the target and find gold bars strapped to his back instead of silver. This is cut with footage of Zach killing himself. Which makes me wonder why does the mafia have the loopers kill themselves? Yes their head is covered with a bag, but what if they just start shouting “it's me! I mean you!” and the looper spares them?
The loopers celebrate Zach's new fortune, taking a bunch of eye drop drugs and tripping balls as they party the night away. We get a montage of the next few weeks with Joe going about his life: killing people, visiting the diner, learning French, and partying. One night a looper remarks more and more loops are getting closed.
One night Joe is awoken by furious knocking on his window. He finds Seth outside, terrified out of his mind. He tells Joe his loop was being closed but he couldn't pull the trigger when he realized who the target was, as the target was singing his favourite childhood song.
Future Seth told Present Seth in the future there is a super powerful crimelord called the Rainmaker who is closing all the loops for some reason. Joe tells us this is called “letting your loop run”, which is not a good thing. Seth asks Joe to help him, but Joe says there's nothing he can do. There's a knock on the door, the security monitor showing three armed hitmen outside demanding Joe let them in. Joe relents, hiding Seth in a giant floor safe where he keeps his silver bars.
The hitmen sweep the place for Seth but find nothing. Their leader, Kid Blue, takes Joe with him to the strip club to meet “Abe”. Abe is the head of the loopers, played by- wait, seriously? Jeff Daniels?! Yeah, this is the man that springs to mind when you say “head of a violent hitman guild”.
Joe tells us Abe is from the future, sent by the mob on a one way ticket to run the loopers. Again, not the best use of time travel ever. It's a good idea at all, but why don't they send more people back to increase their power even further? They probably could even find a way to take over the world and not have to worry about murder being an issue for them anymore. Also, this means there's a Present Abe roaming around the world somewhere, I wonder if he turns out to be one of these guys.
Abe keeps the loopers in check with his own personal army called the gat men, and it sounds like he pretty much controls the crime element in the city. Since this is Kansas, I assume that means he calls the shots when the boys go cow tipping.
Abe is all smiles with Joe, talking with him about his plan to retire to France when his loop gets closed. Abe switches gears when he says he likes Joe, but he knows Seth paid him a visit. He also knows Joe has been stashing half of his silver instead of giving it to him, so he gives him an ultimatum: turn over Seth or the loopers take half of Joe's stash.
This hits Joe pretty hard, as he quietly asks if they're going to kill Seth. Abe replies not if they can help it, because it'd create a cataclysmic change in the future. He says what they will do to Seth is dangerous for the future but not as dangerous as killing him. This I take to mean the movie operates on the “butterfly effect” logic of time travel, where changing one event in the past can create a tidal wave of changes in the future. Which is also the most risky in these movies, because it usually yields the biggest plotholes.
Abe changes gears again and goes back to talking about France, telling Joe he should go to China. Joe is sticking with France, causing Abe to get the funniest line of the movie: “I'm from the future. You should go to China!” Jeff Daniels is so wrong so this role, he's playing Abe way too friendly and casual. I never felt like anyone would be scared of him, he just doesn't have that “do NOT fuck with this guy ever” atmosphere a crimelord should have.
Joe mulls this over and finally gives up Seth's location, but you can tell he feels horrible about it. Abe suggests Joe kills an hour at the club while he instructs his gat men to go get Seth. We catch up with Future Seth, who is running for his life. He's able to climb a fence when he notices a message in the form of scars carved into his arm instructing him to go to an address.
That's really cool, but it actually makes no sense when you think about it. The words were carved into Present Seth's arm when the gat men captured him for Future Seth to read, but wouldn't this mean he had them the past thirty years? Here they just instantly appeared. It gets worse as some of his fingers and his nose vanish, so he gets in his car and speeds towards the address. He's unable to stop the car because his foot suddenly vanishes, causing him to crash into a dumpster.
He starts crawling towards the address, his limbs disappearing one by one. He bangs on the door with a stump, a gat man opening it and shooting him dead. We get a brief glimpse of what's left of Seth lying on an operating table. Hmm... so I guess when you change the present you it IMMEDIATELY changes the future you, completely bypassing all the years of whatever was changed? It's also weird all of the body parts vanishing doesn't happen in one big effect, there must be a slight time delay in the time-space continuum between every single amputation.
What happens to Present Seth now? Do they just keep him alive for the next thirty years so they can send his torso back in time to be killed? But then THAT makes no sense because Future Seth comes to the present completely intact, so.... AHHH! My zombie brain! Regardless, Present Seth is effectively dead at this point, so his role in the future is going to be completely changed and thus the entire future itself could be changed. VERY dangerous indeed Abe.
Joe lies in bed with his favourite stripper Suzie, distraught over getting his best friend killed over silver. He offers her half his silver so she can raise her son right (and likely ease his conscious over Seth), but she says shes doing fine on her own and doesn't need his money. Suzie is played by Piper Perabo, who is topless for almost the entire scene. Goddamn I bet she misses the golden days of Coyote Ugly when she was one of the brightest young stars of the moment.
Later Joe heads out to the cornfields for his next hit, but it's late. Suddenly Bruce Willis appears on the tarp, with no bag over his head and his hands free. They lock eyes, Joe realizing Bruce is his future self. Bruce looks PISSED that he's in another time travel movie where he has to deal with a younger version of his self again.
Bruce starts to run, Joe blasting him in the back but the blast is blocked by the gold bars strapped to his future self's back. Bruce grabs a bar and throws it at Joe to stop him reloading, this pause allowing him to jump Joe and knock him out.
Joe wakes up awhile later with a note stuffed into his pocket telling him to hop a train out of town and run. Instead he heads back to Kansas, taking the time to smash his cell phone for some reason. This is kind of stupid, I would call Abe IMMEDIATELY and try to explain this whole thing so he doesn't get the wrong impression about what's going on. Though maybe it's already too late for that and Joe is trying to avoid detection.
Or maybe Joe is just an idiot, because he returns to his apartment. Yeah, no way the gat men would look for him there. No wait, they ARE there and stealing his silver. Kid Blue is the only one in the apartment, so Joe rushes him and locks him in the floor safe. He screams at him to tell Abe he's going to fix everything.
Blue starts shooting through the floor, which alerts the gat men outside. Joe dives out the window to escape, grabbing the fire escape to keep from falling to his death. He tries to climb down the ladder before he gets shot, but misses a rung and falls to the ground below. The screen goes black as we hear a thud.
We cut back to the previous scene in the cornfield, where this time Bruce appears in the usual tied-and-bagged execution pose. Uh, what? Joe kills him like he has so many targets before- huh? What the hell is going on here?! He finds the gold bars, realizing his loop has just been closed.
A title card informs us it's now Year 1, as we see Joe packing up everything in his apartment. Seriously, what the fuck is going on here?! Did he die when he fell off the fire escape and this is all some kind of hallucination? What's with the title card? Are we now watching 500 Days Of Joe?!
Joe moves to Shanghai, taking Abe's advice after all. We see him set up shop in a swank apartment with a floor safe FULL of paper money.
Year 3 finds Joe doing more of the same, taking drugs and partying.
Year 6, we see he's moved onto needle drugs, and his safe is getting dangerously empty.
Year 10, he is now working for a Chinese gang, and... killing people? Didn't they make a HUGE thing earlier on about how murder is impossible to get away with now? Although maybe that just applies to America and not China? If that's the case, why doesn't the mafia just move to China where they can do whatever the hell they want? I seriously doubt the Chinese crime families would be able to stop an American crime family armed with a freaking TIME MACHINE.
Year 23, Joe has now aged into Bruce Willis, still doing needle drugs and still killing.
We see him trying to hit on a woman in the middle of a bar fight, who responds by flipping him off. Ha, I like her already!
Year 25, Bruce and the woman get married and live a happy, idyllic life.
Year 30 is next, and there's no way this ends well. Bruce is looking at some numbers written on his hand when gat men break into his house and kidnap him. They stuff him into a car while they burn his house down. They take him to a warehouse with a time machine in it, but he manages to break free and kill them all. He even DDTs a guy to death! I don't care if this movie ends in a torrent of M. Night Shyamalan-sized stupidity, this movie is forever AWESOME!
Bruce looks at his old pocket watch, which now has a picture of his wife in it, and gets in the time machine. He appears in Kansas thirty years earlier as we originally saw him, and I get what's going on now. When Joe fell off the fire escape the movie flashbacked to the events that lead to how Bruce appeared without a bag on his head. They really could have made that less confusing...
Speaking of confusing, so is this entire time loop. This is the part where I officially couldn't follow the time travel in the movie anymore, but we'll get to that at the end of this review. Bruce robs a convenience store for a bunch of supplies and holes up in an alley. He's apparently able to sense his younger self's actions, as he follows him to the apartment. He sees Joe fall off the fire escape, landing on a car. Bruce kills all the gat men and drags Joe away.
Abe gets all of his men to work tracking down the Joes, yelling at Kid Blue to go home and “let the grownups do the work”. Kid Blue is very mad at himself for screwing up, nearly in tears. I'm positive Kid Blue is going to turn out to be Abe.
Joe wakes up at a trainyard, wondering aloud how he's going to find Bruce. So where is Bruce? He's breaking into an office or something, using the world's strangest computer to do a search on the numbers written on his hand. They must have some serious ass ink in the future because that thing really should have worn off by now.
Back to this computer though: it has no keyboard just a glowing disc that you hold your hands over?! WTF! How would you type on this thing? How would you even know if you're on the home row?!? The numbers somehow correspond to three babies born in the city on a map, which Bruce prints out. As he takes the paper, he notices words carved into his arm: BE AT. The camera cuts away before he finishes pulling down his sleeve to see what the rest of it says.
The next day Bruce arrives at the diner Joe goes to after his hits. Joe is in the diner waiting for him. This is the part where I want to talk about how FREAKING WEIRD Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks in this movie. They used a combination of prosthetics and heavy make up to make him looking like Bruce Willis, which he does to a fair extent. The problem is he just looks so bizarre because of this, you find yourself staring at him in the scenes trying to figure out what is so different rather than paying attention to the movie. It's almost hypnotizing.
This scene in particular is a prime offender, since Gordon-Levitt and Willis do it pretty much face to face so your eyes are darting back and forth between the two comparing them. I had to watch this scene a few times before I decided to not look at the TV at all so I could really concentrate on what they were saying. Bruce pulls up his sleeve and we see the words were BEATRIX, the waitress Joe likes. We see Joe's arm is covered in bloody bandages. They talk, Bruce and Rian Johnson doing their best to deflect the details of time travel in relation to the story.
“I don't want to talk about time travel shit because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws. It doesn't matter.”“I hurt myself, it changes your body. So does what I do now change your memories?”
“IT DOESN'T MATTER!”
Ha hah, that is FANTASTIC! It's the modern day equivalent of this:
If you're wondering how he eats and breathes
And other science facts
Then repeat to yourself its just a show
I should really just relax... for Mystery Science Theater 3000!
They talk, Bruce telling Joe he can remember what Joe does after he decides to do it, which is how he knew he was going back to their apartment. Bruce has great scorn for his younger self, calling him a selfish junkie with a child mentality. Bruce says his wife will change all of this with her love and that he thought his future might actually be different until yesterday.
We get an extended version of the gat men capturing Bruce, shooting his wife dead in the process. Again, murder in China must not be the big deal it is in America. Bruce tells Joe about the Rainmaker, who came out of nowhere and within six months took control of all the five major syndicates COMPLETELY alone. There's all kinds of urban legends about the Rainmaker, like he has a synthetic jaw or that he saw his mother get shot in front of him, but no one knows anything about him in the way of facts. The Rainmaker is the one closing all the loops, which has his first priority after taking over.
Bruce shows Joe his map, how he's going to use it to find and kill the Rainmaker to save his wife in the future. There's a brief flashback showing a guy at the hospital frantically calling Bruce to give him the numbers while thugs try to break into the office he's hiding in, but it's never really explained HOW they were able to trace the numbers to the crimelord. That's fine though, this was the part I realized this isn't a “details” kind of movie.
The Rainmaker is one of the three kids we saw earlier, all that just happen to have been born in Kansas and continue to live there. Damn, Kansas must become the center of the world in the year 2044. Joe wants nothing to do with any of this, wanting to see the picture of Bruce's wife so he can walk away when he sees her which will also save her life.
Bruce refuses to give her up, which shows he's every bit as selfish as he says Joe is. Earlier Joe said being a looper doesn't attract the most “forward thinkers”, which is absolutely illustrated perfectly here. Joe's idea is absolutely foolproof, and it's not like Bruce will ever get to see his wife again. Sure, technically Joe will grow INTO Bruce one day but how does Bruce know things will happen the same if he makes such a major change to the future by killing the Rainmaker? Bruce's motives for killing the Rainmaker seem more like revenge despite the fact he seems sure Joe will end up with her.
Joe is about to draw a gun on Bruce when Bruce kicks him between the legs to stop him. Bruce looks up and suddenly realizes the diner is empty. What?! How in the world did everyone leave without the Joes noticing? This is a tiny ass diner and there were people almost directly behind them, the only way the diner could be empty is if they all vanished into thin air.
This seems even more impossible as Blue and the gat men rush in, having somehow cleared the entire diner without the Joes noticing? These guys aren't exactly inconspicuous! Joe grabs a part of the map as Bruce shores up behind a bench, getting ready for a shootout. Joe and the gat men join forces to shoot at him but Bruce manages to escape out the window, losing everyone in the cornfield. We get a great moment where Joe and Blue look at each other, then realize they're enemies and act accordingly. Joe runs as the gat men fire at him, but Blue screams he be taken alive.
Click here for Part 2!