The smart time-traveling sci-fi thriller Looper imagines a world just near enough to look familiar, and just futuristic enough to be chillingly askew. The year is 2074 when, come to think of it, today's college freshmen will still be roaming the earth. Yet time travel is already possible, if illegal, given the havoc such historical leapfrogging could wreak. The situation is good business, though, for a ring of gangsters led by a mysterious boss called the Rainmaker, who, with his henchmen, runs a lucrative assassination business in the shadows: They ship designated victims back in time 30 years and employ Mob foot soldiers, called ''loopers,'' stationed in 2044 to take care of business no muss, no fuss, no evidence. The bound and hooded victim arrives zzzzp through a wormhole in time and space, and the looper shoots the vic kablooey dead (a clunky blunderbuss is the firearm of choice). Then the assassin collects his pay, parties hard (numbed by recreational drugs in the form of eyedrops), and waits for his next job.
In the worst-case scenario, the assignment requires ''closing the loop.'' That's when the unfortunate schmo scheduled for termination turns out to be the looper's future self and when life starts resembling an existential Möbius strip.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays one such unfortunate schmo, a soul-deadened, blunderbuss-toting, drug-numbed, time-traveling employee named Joe. When this average Joe balks at closing his own loop, he messes with the laws of the universe. Gordon-Levitt also messes with our heads, because he appears both familiar and not so. The always compelling, ever more impressive actor is seven years older than he was when he first worked with Looper writer-director Rian Johnson on the filmmaker's first feature, Brick. But with the help of subtle prosthetic work, Gordon-Levitt not only looks older and more mature in Looper; around the nose, lip, and eyebrow he also looks a little like someone else. Like Bruce Willis, in fact.
Which is only right, since Willis plays Joe of the future. Eluding fate and escaping when younger Joe hesitates to pull the trigger, older Joe now hunts the Rainmaker to settle a terrible score. And younger Joe, endangering the criminal enterprise when he breaks his contract, now has the Rainmaker's wrath to fear. (Jeff Daniels effortlessly steals his scenes as the lieutenant in charge of the looper operation, a major thug with an attitude closer to that of the Dude than of a mobster.) The story itself twists and loops, finding its way eventually to a farmhouse in a Kansas cornfield, the land protected by an intrepid lady (Emily Blunt) who's got a shotgun and isn't afraid to use it to protect the little boy who lives there with her. Blunt makes an unlikely homesteader. But then, as he demonstrated in his previous two brainy fantasy features, the brink between the unlikely and the intriguing is Johnson's favorite fault line. In Brick (2005), he interposed a stylized, noirish hard-boiled detective story in a contemporary suburban high school setting; in The Brothers Bloom (2008), he had heady fun with games played by a pair of stylized con men who might have dropped by from the set of a Wes Anderson movie. The time swivels in Looper evoke some of Inception's fancy temporal tricks (some of which, of course, also involved Gordon-Levitt straddling multiple time zones at once). But it's the glimpses of Children of Men-like societal dystopia that give the movie its real weight, and distinguish Johnson's third feature as a marked step forward. While it's fun to watch Gordon-Levitt prowl around in skinny hipster duds looking downtown-jaded, amusing to watch Willis in sturdy, bald-action-hero middle age, and a kick to see the two Joes size each other up at a diner sit-down, it's positively jolting to observe the gap between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the poor, that Looper predicts for 2044 a blink-of-an-eye 32 years away. (The rich literally mow down the poor in the streets.) Gee-whiz innovations in fast cars and cool digital communications gizmos do nothing to help crumbling American infrastructure. Looper whispers that the future is now, and it's time to wipe the drops from our eyes or else get stuck in a loop, an endless cycle, a rut. B+