(500) Days of Summer might have been the first scientific proof of Joseph Gordon-Levitt the star, but it’s 2005’s Brick that tossed him out there as a contender. Though stylized to near-suffocation at points, Rian Johnson’s schoolyard noir lets the kid from 3rd Rock stretch his chops to snapping, filling us in on his polish and commitment to character. In Looper, Johnson’s third feature, JGL isn’t fed quite as rich a diet, but he still pulls most of the weight in the writer/director’s original treatment of time travel and the stickiness that surrounds it.
Set in a present not far from our own, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) labors as a “looper,” a glassy-eyed mafia grunt specializing in the offing of anonymous transgressors banished from the future and sent back 30 years for disposal. To limit liability, the employing syndicate, run by the oddly kind Abe (Jeff Daniels), periodically shoots back decades-weathered versions of the loopers themselves, stamping a non-negotiable expiration date on its freelancers. When Joe, already mired in existential woe over the finality of his career, comes face-to-face with his own creased visage (Bruce Willis), he hesitates just long enough for the more experienced, more dangerous version of himself to flee. Falling in with a single mother (Emily Blunt) and her captivating, frightening son (Pierce Gagnon), Young Joe tracks Old Joe’s movements and vice-versa, each killer hacking brush to escape from their impossible situations.
So few dystopian setups dodge the derivative, and Johnson’s isn’t perfect, but Looper, worth it for the action bones alone, is more clever than anything in this year’s sci-fi class. Very few movies allow their main man to sprawl with such indeterminate bearings, and even fewer are able to haul him in when it counts.