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A time-travel twister that pits a ruthless hit man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) against his future self (Bruce Willis), "Looper" marks a huge leap forward for Rian Johnson ("Brick").

Old Joe Bruce Willis Joe Joseph Gordon-Levitt Sara Emily Blunt Seth Paul Dano Kid Blue Noah Segan Suzie Piper Perabo Abe Jeff Daniels Cid Pierce Gagnon Old Joe's Wife Summer Qing

A time-travel twister that pits a ruthless hit man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) against his future self (Bruce Willis), “Looper” marks a huge leap forward for Rian Johnson (“Brick”). His grandly conceived, impressively mounted third feature shows a giddy, geeky interest in science-fiction, then forces it into the back seat and lets the multidimensional characters drive. In a genre infamous for loose ends, this thinking man’s thriller marshals action, romance and a dose of very dark comedy toward a stunning payoff. Reception should be solid, not stellar, with a long cult afterlife.

In the future, mobsters dispose of unwanted rivals by sending them 30 years back to the past, before time travel has been developed, and into the hands of a team of young screw-ups called “loopers” to do the killing. Why loopers? Because sooner or later, these live-in-the-moment assassins will wind up killing their time-displaced selves — or “closing the loop.” They’re rewarded, handsomely, and life is sweet until … well, until time travel is invented and they get booted back to face the barrel of their own blunderbusses.

You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to know that sending assassins back to the past is a bad idea — not for a movie, but as a system of gangland garbage disposal. Kick your unwanted trash into the future, and you’re rid of it, but blast a career killer back in time, and there’s a pretty strong chance the death-marked assassin will irrevocably alter the “future” from which he came if he can manage to escape.

That loophole, big enough to drive a plot through, is precisely what makes Johnson’s crazy idea work. Joe, played by Gordon-Levitt with pale blue contacts, puffy lips and a fake schnozz that takes some getting used to, is pretty unconflicted about killing strangers from the future, himself included. But when Older Joe arrives in the form of grizzled action star Willis, his 30-years-younger self flinches just long enough for the guy to make his move, knocking Joe unconscious before disappearing into his own past.

Now, here’s where things get fun for the kind of sci-fi crowd that likes to diagram and debate the logic of time-travel stories. You’d think that Older Joe has the upper hand, able to anticipate the way his younger self reacted, but as cat-and-mouse games go, the young punk has a distinct advantage, since the slightest injury to Gordon-Levitt’s body travels forward to appear as scar tissue on Willis.

The pic demonstrates just how this works with Joe’s sidekick Seth (Paul Dano). After purposefully allowing his older self to escape (or “letting his loop run” in the parlance), Seth hides out at Joe’s place — not a smart idea, considering that Joe prizes money over friendship, and doesn’t put up much resistance before surrending Seth to the syndicate chief (Jeff Daniels, whose blood runs cold behind a bearded smile). What follows is a truly disturbing death scene, as Seth’s loop (Frank Brennan) tries to hop the nearest train, only to see 30-year-old injuries start to appear all over his body, the result of the younger Seth being sadistically tortured offscreen.

Kill the kid and his loop goes, too — a rule that puts Older Joe in the awkward position of simultaneously having to run from, and protect, his younger self. Trickier from a storytelling standpoint is the fact that auds don’t meet Willis until the first-act break, at which point the film must rapidly supply a romantic backstory for a character who, in the present reality, technically does not yet exist. So, while Gordon-Levitt’s Joe is a heartless hustler, Willis’ older-and-wiser counterpart brings soul to the character, having discovered — and had to watch die — the love of his life.

Willis can play the tough guy in his sleep, but it’s the character’s tenderness that makes possible the ruthlessness with which he sets about trying to change his own fate. Thirty years after the story takes place, a mysterious figure called “the Rainmaker” has risen to power, and in classic “Terminator” fashion, Older Joe has the rare chance to strangle the monster in his crib. His only clues are the kid’s birthdate and mythology: They say he has a synthetic jaw and that he watched his mom die.

While Willis single-mindedly begins to hunt down and execute 10-year-olds, Gordon-Levitt tracks down a lead that points him toward an isolated Kansas farmhouse where Sara (Emily Blunt, stunning enough to suggest a new future for Joe) and son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) have cut themselves off from modern society, leading to the inevitable confrontation between the two Joes — and a twist that not only rewards the intricate character work of the pic’s laggy middle hour but beautifully ties everything together.

Complicated as it all sounds, Johnson paves the way with wall-to-wall voiceover. As in “Brick,” the script’s well-tooled lines are stilted enough to sound cool, and angled in the direction of comedy, relying on expressions less suggestive of a sci-fi future than they are of vintage film noir. Face-to-face with himself, young Joe hisses, “Why don’t you do what old men do, and die?” For both thesps, the challenging roles amount to playing near-nihilism, while also subtly absorbing one another’s characteristics.

The two actors look nothing alike, of course, which wouldn’t be a big deal, if Johnson hadn’t tried so hard to force a resemblance, burying Gordon-Levitt’s striking mug under prosthetics (the most distracting being an application meant to simulate Willis’ unique beak) instead of simply trusting auds to care enough about Joe to see past the differences. Still, Johnson steps up to the pic’s practical challenges nicely, balancing high-caliber action with intricate character work. The support team leverages Louisiana to suggest a 30-year-distant Kansas (and Shanghai for locations 30 years farther down the line) without requiring too many effects, though the digital work looks convincing when needed. The loopers’ signature weapon, essentially a sawed-off shotgun with a Steampunk twist, is evocative of both past and future. If the imperfect yet promising “Brick” teased an exciting new voice, then “Looper” suggests big things ahead.

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Production: A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a TriStar Pictures, FilmDistrict, Endgame Entertainment presentation in association with DMG Entertainment of a Ram Bergman production. (International sales: FilmNation Entertainment, Los Angeles.) Produced by Bergman, James D. Stern. Executive producers, Douglas E. Hansen, Julie Goldstein, Peter Schlessel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dan Mintz. Co-producers, Dave Pomier, Eleanor Nett, Lucas Smith, Christopher C. Chen. Directed, written by Rian Johnson.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Steve Yedlin; editor, Bob Ducsay, music, Nathan Johnson; production designer, Ed Verreaux; art directors, James Gelarden, Scott Plauche; set decorator, Katherine Verreaux; costume designer, Sharen Davis; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Jeremy Peirson; re-recording mixers, Tim LeBlanc, Peirson; special effects coordinator, David Nami; visual effects supervisor, Karen Goulekas; visual effects producer, Dane Allan Smith; visual effects, Hydraulx, Scanline VFX, Atomic Fiction, Base-FX Beijing, Pixel Magic, Incessant Rain Studios; stunt coordinator, Steven Ritzi; assistant director, Nicholas Mastandrea; second unit camera, Jaron Presant; casting, Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Calif., Aug. 28, 2012. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Gala Presentations, opener.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 119 MIN.

With: Old Joe Bruce Willis Joe Joseph Gordon-Levitt Sara Emily Blunt Seth Paul Dano Kid Blue Noah Segan Suzie Piper Perabo Abe Jeff Daniels Cid Pierce Gagnon Old Joe's Wife Summer Qing

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