Looper (2012): Rian Johnson’s Third Film, Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Many films label themselves, or are marketed and sold, as sci-fi-action-thrillers, but at best, they deliver in one of these genres, which makes “Looper, “ the new exciting feature, stands out, as it fulfills basic expectations—and more.

The third film from the gifted writer-director Rian Johnson, who previously made “Brick,” in 2005, is arguably his most ambitious and most accomplished to date, even though it combines some familiar conventions of the three aforementioned genres,

“Looper” is based on a terrific premise, the very invention of time travel, which is one of the key concepts of the entire sci-fi format. On the surface, it feels like a sci-fi version of “Back to the Future,” the bright 1985 comedy, starring Michael J. Fox, which revolved around time travel.

Early on, it’s established with great efficiency and promising suspense that in the future, time travel will be invented,  or rather reinvented, but it will not be available in a democratic or capitalistic way.  No, time travel will be classified by the authorities as criminal and illegal and will only be available on the black market (the unbridled, uncontrolled side of aggressive capitalism).

A number of intriguing postulates derive from this central idea.  For example, when the mob wishes to get rid of a particular individual,, they will send their target 30 years into the past, where a “looper,” a hired gun, will be waiting to mop up.

This looper turns out to be Joe (the estimable and diverse Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young guy who is getting rich and is living a pretty good  life is good–until the mob decides to “close the loop,” sending back Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) for assassination.  Mind you, Joe is not the only looper, Paul Dano, his pal Seth, is also a looper.

Like all loopers, they are contract assassins in a program overseen by Abe (nicely played by Jeff Daniels), a strange man whose teMper and commands go from mild to wild, from being quiet to being menacing.

The motifs of the double, doubling identities, and two competing and rivaling selves, which have been prominent in the work oif such brilliant directors as Hitchcock and Kieslowski, are put to good use here.  It’s both suspenseful and scary when Joe discovers that his next target is his own future self and, furthermore, needs to do something about it.

Time-bending in both philosophical and cinematic ways, “Looper” begins in 2044, when time travel doesn’t exist yet, but will be some three decades down the line.  Gangsters of various kinds will be using time travel to kill people, by “zapping” their victims back to the past, where hit men-loopers, employed by the future gangsters, coldly assassinates them and then quickly disposes of their bodies.

The trouble with Joe derives from the fact that he lets his loop run, which means, among other things, that when he shows up to work, his older self appears in front of him, and reasons that cannot be spelled here, h lets his older self escape.  Needless to say, this doesn’t happen very often, as if all moves properly, the older self has a sack over his head, while being gagged and tied.

A new, confusing situation occurs when  Bruce Willis’ character shows up in front of his younger self untied, lacking a sack over his head, getting the drop on him and escape.  There is a funny scene, set in a diner, opposite each other, ordering, of course, the same disg, steak and eggs.

The movie plays on the notions of the fear and excitement of you facing you in different time periods, of fearing and yet being intrigued by you killing yourself, whether or not you are ready and willing to die.

The plot includes twists and turns that cannot be disclosed here, or else the fun will be spoiled, but it’s a credit to Johnson the writer that the narrative is shapely, full of surprises, and most important of all, both precise and concise; he doesn’t use the potentially seductive concept in vague or broad terms, as could be the case with other directors.

One of the narrative’s few elements that feels derivative concerns the two Joes seeking a boy who will, unless destroyed, become the villain of the future, the Rainmaker.  Rian Johnson has borrowed this idea from Schwarzenegger-James Cameron sci-fi actioner, “The Terminator.”

“Looper” reteams Gordon-Levitt with Johnson, who have first collaborated on the 2005 indie hit “Brick,” which received its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the Dramatic Competition series.  Quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s most reliable and most diverse actors, Gordon-Levitt can do drama, action, and comedy with the same facility.

The “RED” experience must have invigorated Bruce Willis, for he offers his best dramatic performance in at least a decade in a challenging part that allows him to show his considerable acting chops.

The supporting cast members, composed of Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels, all hit their marks.