Impeccable 'Looper' a welcome return to smart science fiction

Time travel is tricky business but Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is a mind-bendingly wild, character-driven modern sci-fi classic.

From H.G. Welles’ genre staple “The Time Machine” to Terry Gilliam’s twisted “Time Bandits,” the notion of time travel has always been romantic, a way to revisit the nostalgia of the past or to glimpse things to come. “Looper” scrapes off time travel’s luster and delivers a rusted, violent and visionary future.

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”) impeccable third feature discards the blustering and frenetic CGI chaos prevalent in just about every new sci-fi movie and delivers a grounded, organic and thought-provoking action film. He puts the characters in the driver’s seat, not the story, nor the effects. “Looper” is a Hitchcockian morality play pumped with adrenaline, creating the ultimate funhouse.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a janitor of sorts in 2042 Kansas. He is known as a Looper, a killer in the present who waits for his target to be transported back from 2072. Apparently it’s nearly impossible to hide a dead body in the deep future, so if you want someone killed, send them back in time. Once the target is removed, the body is incinerated and payment is received.

Addicted to drugs, Joe leads the high life in a burnt out city. He arrogantly stands above the rest of a destitute society with his flashy sports car and secret stash of silver bricks. When Joe’s employer Abe (Jeff Daniels) assigns him to close his loop, meaning he needs to kill his future self when he is transported back in time, Joe hesitates and Old Joe (Bruce Willis) flees.

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Johnson gives us more than just a chase film. He does a remarkable job at playing with morality. You see, Old Joe isn’t just a fugitive. He’s actually searching for a young boy who will eventually grow up to become an evil warlord known as the Rainmaker. By finding and killing the young boy, Old Joe thinks he can save the future.

Johnson quickly grounds the sci-fi actioner as we enter this morality playground. We are presented with quite the dilemma:  Should a young boy be assassinated if it is known he will grow up to murder thousands of innocent people? Should you kill your future self so that your present self can remain employed? Can the future even be altered?  These questions pit the three main characters in a two-hour standoff. Gordon-Levitt wants to kill Willis who wants to kill Emily Blunt’s son, who, in turn, has the power to destroy them all. Meanwhile, Jeff Daniel’s team is hunting them both.

Johnson’s script is razor sharp and intelligent. He doesn’t bog the audience down with time travel specifics but focuses all the attention on the drama, exposing us to his characters’ transformations. Johnson’s “Looper” works so well because he provides plenty of gray area-moments to empathize with each of the characters while at other times wanting them to be stopped or killed.

The action scenes are intense and cleverly choreographed and the exchanges between Gordon-Levitt and Willis as the same character are grossly entertaining.

The three leads give gripping performances. Gordon-Levitt, under a layer of makeup, is terrific. Running the gamut of sleaze, compassionate protector and naïve punk, he gives “Looper” a strong foundation from which the rest of the film is constructed.

Bruce Willis gives us the ‘Best of’ compilation of Bruce Willis. Like his “Sixth Sense” performance, he is morose and dour, adding a deeper conflicted personality to Joe before bringing out his John McClane wild side before the film’s finale.

Shotgun-toting Emily Blunt dons a Midwestern accent, slipping into a role as a single mother farm girl. Standing her ground, Blunt is convincing as a hard-as-nails mom who will do anything to protect her only son.

“Looper” is a welcome return to smart science fiction. It’s more than just a popcorn film. It’s a drama that uses an age-old genre device to play a fantastic moral game of cat and mouse. A definite must-see.