Longtime readers of this space may remember that in the spring of 2006 a certain movie reviewer went on and on (and on, then on some more) about her love for Rian Johnson's first film, "Brick," a near-flawless pulp mystery in which high-school kids jawed like a Hammett gumshoe. This same dame was totally unimpressed with Johnson's 2008 followup, "The Brothers Bloom," a preciously quirky adventure about lonely boys and sad dads that seemed like a long, tedious Wes Anderson outtake. Then, upon learning that Johnson's next movie involved futuristic time travel, our writer friend was just about crushed. Science fiction? Ugh. She's flummoxed enough by science fact, and to have to dissect what-if scenarios too often results in an automatic fail.
So I don't know if it was the low expectations, or perhaps the weeks of creeping dread, but "Looper" is nothing short of fantastic. Johnson reteams with his "Brick" star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, lately ubiquitous but here nearly unrecognizable — for reasons that will later become clear — with green contact lenses and prosthetics that give him a vaguely aquiline nose and thinned-out top lip. It's the year 2044, and Gordon-Levitt plays a hit man named Joe, whose job it is to off people sent back from 30 years in the future; he waits in a Kansas field, blunderbuss in hand, and blows away the hooded figure that materializes in front of him. Occasionally the future will deliver the gunman's older self, a killing for which he is paid handsomely. This bittersweet assignment is known as "closing the loop."
Joe has seen what can happen when a looper fails to close his loop (that's a manic Paul Dano in an ill-fated cameo), so when Old Joe shows up, Joe takes the shot. But, as played by the green-eyed, aquiline-nosed, thin-lipped Bruce Willis, Old Joe isn't quite ready to die, setting into motion an ultra-violent game of cat and mouse (or: cat and middle-aged cat), where Old Joe's goals go beyond staying alive; he's also out to prevent the rise to power of a crime lord called the Rainmaker, the one who decides to start furiously closing loops circa 2074. And chasing both of them is Joe's boss Abe (the ever-reliable Jeff Daniels, Gordon-Levitt's costar in a nifty flick called "The Lookout"), somehow both pitiless and understanding.
And when Emily Blunt enters the movie, it seems at first like one of those Hollywood-mandated romantic interludes that derails the action. Cast against type, Blunt is Sara, the axe-swinging single mother sheltering an on-the-lam Joe at her remote farm and trying to care for her resentful young son Cid, played by an astonishing Pierce Gagnon, only about 5 years old when the film was shot. (Quvenzhané Wallis, watch your back.) So while Old Joe combs the dangerous, scummy city for the Rainmaker, Joe cools his heels (and battles drug withdrawal) at Sara's retro-looking farm, which seems like it could be out of a Dust Bowl drama but for a few noticeable futuristic touches, much like "Looper" itself: unmistakably neo-noir, right down to world-weary voiceover, despite its sci-fi trappings.
A storyteller must keep a lot of flaming bowling pins in the air if he's gonna throw the plot-taxing conceit of time travel into the mix, and Johnson is mostly successful at either explaining away incongruities or at least distracting you with enough blood-and-guts action so you really don't care about the holes. Johnson even hedges his bets during the excellent diner scene, in which both Joes have a tense parlay about their unique situation. Not only do we appreciate the yeoman job that Gordon-Levitt is doing trying to channel Willis (even replicating the latter's cadence and slight Jersey accent), but Johnson basically suggests that we get over it, as Old Joe admits that time travel is "a fuzzy mechanism."
It might be too soon to declare Gordon-Levitt the best of his generation, but he is probably the most versatile. Playing an essentially bad guy and unable to traffic in his typical twinkly charm, Gordon-Levitt remains riveting, matched well by the eternally underrated Willis, who has always proven strong in these substantial character-actor parts. (Speaking of great character actors, watch for Garret Dillahunt — so good "Deadwood" cast him twice — in a small but pivotal role.) I totally can't wait to see what Johnson does next, and if we're lucky he'll bring Gordon-Levitt with him. As for Willis, he revives my favorite action franchise in early 2013, making Valentine's Day "A Good Day To Die Hard."