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Joseph-Gordon Levitt assassinates targets from the future in Rian Johnson’s sci-noir “Looper”

The possible consequences of time-travel are almost too far-reaching to tackle in a movie. Once the obstacle of how to credibly convey time-travel is overcome, there’s the concept of chaos theory — would things turn out worse if you went back and killed a youthful Adolf Hitler? Director Rian Johnson could have taken Looper in any number of directions — the plot strings would be endless in Christopher Nolan’s hands — but instead keeps things fairly simple and noir. He went gangster, making his protagonist a mob assassin in the year 2044.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) is a Looper, waiting for his targets to be sent from 30 years in the future when time travel is possible but only available on the black market. When his future self (Bruce Willis) comes back, Joe fails to follow through and his older self escapes. Older Joe isn’t just a fugitive, though. In a reversal on the premise of The Terminator, he’s trying to find the younger version of The Rainmaker, a tyrant who is committing atrocities in the 2070s.

Taking out the future Rainmaker can’t possibly make life worse in the future, and Older Joe does have an ulterior motive, but now Young Joe is a target since he did not “close the loop.” While on the lam he stumbles across a farm inhabited by what appears to be a single mom (Emily Blunt) with an itchy trigger finger and her 10-year-old son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Young Joe bonds with them as the mob’s Gat Men and Older Joe close in, but coming face to face with himself has complicated matters. And Cid, it turns out, has some anger issues.

Besides creating an effective genre mash-up, Johnson introduced plot elements that made things simple as well. His fictional 2070s society made time travel illegal in order to reduce the chaotic consequences. Assassination ties up loose ends, limiting the Pandora’s Box of possibilities. No one’s going to go back and kill Hitler either; the wrinkle in time covers three decades, period. It’s those parameters that allowed Johnson to create effective characters and give his cast room to develop their roles more deeply than science fiction often allows.

Although Blunt packs a lot of punch into her screen time, Gordon-Levitt benefits most. He worked hard at absorbing Willis’ mannerisms, and spent time in the makeup chair for some Willis-like prosthetic work, eyebrow shaping and colored contacts. He stops well short of parody, though, instead taking one more step toward qualifying as one of the greatest actors of his generation. This is his second collaboration with Johnson, whose 2005 high-school noir Brick gave Gordon-Leavitt the vehicle to show he had A-list box-office potential. If actor becomes muse to director in the Scorsese/DeNiro tradition, and Johnson continues to wring maximum effect from his stylized approach to action sequences, then 30 years from now Looper will be remembered as their landmark collaboration.

Looper Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, directed by Rian Johnson, rated R, 118 mins