The gangsters of the far future will no longer execute people by forcing their feet into wet cement and dropping them into rivers. With time travel, high-tech mobsters can dump cheats, rivals, and other unwanted citizens into the past.
"Time travel hasn't yet been invented. But in 30 years, it will be," announces Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) at the outset of writer/director Rian Johnson's thoughtful, thrilling Looper. In the year 2044, Joe works as a specialized kind of hitman called a "Looper," and when the mob bosses of the 2070s send back a prospective victim, Joe's waiting to make the kill and incinerate the body.
Joe stands in a field checking a pocket watch, a hooded figure suddenly materializes and Joe just as suddenly blasts him with a futuristic shotgun called a blunderbuss. Where many science fiction movies, especially ones involving time travel, can become so convoluted that they require glossaries or spreadsheets to explain their settings, in Looper Johnson sets up a few basic rules (like flying motorcycles and low-level telekinesis), sticks close to them, and examines how his flawed antiheroes hold up under pressure.
Johnson's feature debut Brick helped make Gordon-Levitt a movie star. In Looper, the young actor presents an intriguing variation on a hard-boiled antihero with a conscience. Joe may be a professional killer hooked on an eye-dropper based narcotic, but he feels protective of a mob brothel's lovely prostitute (a tarted-up Piper Perabo), and haltingly studies French in an attempt to better himself.
A complication arises, as revealed in Looper's trailer, when Joe shows up for his latest hit only to discover that his prospective target is himself from 30 years in the future, played by Bruce Willis. The casting explains Gordon-Levitt's subtle but initially peculiar make-up, minimizing his mouth to make him resemble Willis. The actors intriguingly approximate each other's performances without either doing a straight-up impersonation.
Future-Joe gets the drop on present-Joe and embarks on a mysterious mission. Johnson borrows some half-forgotten plot elements from the first Terminator movie, and for a moment, Looper seems poised to follow the trajectory of high-tech thrillers like the Total Recall remake, emphasizing chases and fancy gizmos.
Instead, Looper's second half makes an abrupt change of direction involving Emily Blunt as a single mother at a remote farmhouse. Johnson gently applies the brakes to his narrative and allows his characters to reveal themselves with a more deliberate pace. Old Joe's contempt for his younger self cleverly conveys the concept of self-hatred, as well as the tensions between generations. Some story lines go underexplored, like the history of Jeff Daniels' fatherly but cruel gang leader, but this speaks more to the richness of Looper's world, as opposed to a failure to tie off loose ends.
Time travel movies invariably have to pick a side as to whether the future is fixed or history can be rewritten, although bad ones try to have it both ways. Looper endorses the idea that travelers can tamper with the time line: If young Joe scratches a message in his skin, old Joe discovers the scar immediately thereafter, as opposed to always having it. Looper's concept of quantum physics may be debatable, but its insights into human nature are dead-on.