Joseph as Bruce

'Looper' is one of the best time-travel movies ever made

The makers of Looper took a big risk by casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young Bruce Willis. (Heck, you take a big risk when you cast the suddenly inconsistent Bruce Willis in anything nowadays.)

Those risks paid off in mega-jackpot fashion in writer-director Rian Johnson's brilliant and taut Looper, one of the best time-travel epics ever to hit the screen.

Levitt plays Joe, a loner living in 2042 who has actually been sent back from the year 2072 to kill people on behalf of organized crime. He stands in a field with his gun aimed at a tarp, waiting for his hooded victim to zap back from the future and receive a very rude greeting.

There's a big twist to having this job, nicknamed "Looper" by those who occupy it: Eventually, the "loop" will be closed. That person you will be dispatching one day will be you, and a big chunk of gold will be strapped to your dead back to make the 30 years leading up to your "loop" being closed a little more pleasurable.

Still, that's a pretty shitty job when you get down to it, and for Joe, that job becomes shittier when his future self (Willis) gets sent back—and Joe is not ready to get shot by himself while on bended knees.

Johnson doesn't go the Back to the Future route when it comes to people meeting their future selves in the present. The universe doesn't unravel—but Joe's present life most certainly does. Future Joe has an agenda, and Present Joe knows that Future Joe is the sort of tenacious bastard who will do anything to achieve that agenda, because, well, they're the same person. It makes for an interesting rivalry.

There's a scene in which the two face off in a diner, and it's one of 2012's greatest film moments. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It's that good.

I love the look of the world 30 years from now as depicted in this movie: It's the most-viable future world as I've ever seen in a science-fiction film. The cars look like modified versions of what we are already driving. The motorcycles are a little more high-tech. And the cities are at once spiraling, sprawling and dilapidated. I bought the world Johnson depicts here.

I also bought Gordon-Levitt as a younger version of Willis, and Willis as a future version of Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt is wearing makeup to slightly alter his appearance, but it's his smirking demeanor that screams "Bruce Willis." He doesn't overdo it with the smirk, nor does he overdo it with the growly Willis vocal inflections. He injects just enough Willis mannerisms to make the portrayal seem natural.

Willis, who is having a mixed year with direct-to-video crap and masterpieces like this and Moonrise Kingdom, looks like he is totally invested in this picture. He's looked like he was sleepwalking through films in recent years (Cop Out could be his very worst performance), but he is old-school, awesome Willis this time out. Man, the screenplay requires him to execute some rather foul acts.

The great work doesn't stop with Willis and Gordon-Levitt. Jeff Daniels also delivers some of his best work in years as Abe, a crime boss sent back from the future to make sure things don't get out of hand. The great thing about Daniels is that he plays the crime boss in the way we generally know Daniels—as a mild-mannered, warm, gentlemanly sort. It makes the moments when Abe goes off genuinely frightening.

Emily Blunt gets a good role, for a change, as Sara, a farm-dwelling mother looking to protect her moody son (the amazing child-actor Pierce Gagnon) and herself from vagrants. She has more than vagrancy to contend with when the Joes come calling. Gagnon has an arsenal of facial expressions that would make a young Haley Joel Osment cry with envy.

Noah Segan is a messed-up delight as Kid Blue, Abe's hapless henchman. Segan was in Johnson's other two feature-film efforts (the brilliant, Gordon-Levitt-starring Brick, and the not-so-great The Brothers Bloom). After this movie, I'm thinking he is going to be nailing down some other high-profile roles. Paul Dano is his usual great self as Seth, Joe's fellow Looper and best friend.

This film marks a nice return to form for Johnson after the slight misstep that was the convoluted Bloom. As he showed in Brick, he isn't afraid to take big chances and risks. Looper is a high-wire act without a net that safely makes it from one end of the wire to the other.

Sure, this review and the ad campaign for Looper give some plot points away. Don't worry, though, because Johnson has made a movie during which it is virtually impossible to guess what's going to happen next. You'll walk in with a general idea of the goings-on—but your jaw will be agape with surprise by the time it wraps. It's a true mind-bender, and it's one of the year's best films.

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