Two men named Joe sit in a diner on the outskirts of a dystopian metropolis in writer-director Rian Johnson's New Orleans-shot Looper. "I don't want to talk about time travel," says one Joe to the other. "If we start talking about time travel we're going to be here all day making diagrams with straws." The subject is hard to avoid because the two Joes are actually the same man, separated by 30 years but brought together by an ostensibly banned time machine. Every science fiction fan knows how quickly time-travel stories can fall apart as past and future events influence each other, threatening to destroy the required internal logic. Looper repeatedly alludes to this familiar pitfall by way of delivering the news: Johnson's smart and entertaining sci-fi action movie deserves a hero's welcome on the strength of its solid storyline alone.
The inherent messiness of time travel lies at the heart of Looper's strikingly original premise. The story takes place mostly in 2044, an era in which time travel hasn't yet been discovered. Thirty years in the future, it's fully operational, but prohibited because its effects are too difficult to control. Only the 2074 mafia has use of time travel, and solely to dispose of its enemies. Victims are sent back in time exactly 30 years for instant assassination and disposal by young hit men called "loopers." The name derives from a clause in the loopers' contract. To fully clean up the murderous mess, each looper agrees to later travel back in time and be killed by his younger self, who then retires. Loopers know they will enjoy 30 additional years of carefree living before looping back to suffer their own grisly fates.
It's not hard to imagine something might go wrong in regards to the loopers' contractual agreement. But that's where Looper's predictability ends. Johnson, who burst onto the indie film scene in 2005 with the self-financed teen noir Brick, is the kind of filmmaker who storyboards every shot in advance and sticks to the plan once the camera starts rolling. Looper has no wasted moments, and every twist and turn feels not only vetted for story sense but carefully designed for maximum impact.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis handle the younger and older Joes with steady professionalism. Gordon-Levitt's three-hour daily makeup ritual to render him more Willis-like may be the movie's only major misstep — they just look nothing alike. Jeff Daniels is a wonderful surprise playing against type as a vicious gangster who traveled back in time to serve as boss of the loopers. "Trust me, I'm from the future," he says. "You'll want to live in China."
It's hard to say why Hollywood has such a tough time coming up with intelligent and engaging works of science fiction. But that phenomenon only makes a movie like Looper more satisfying. Johnson's film will almost certainly be hailed as a classic by the legions of sci-fi fanatics who are forced to live in a perpetual state of cinematic deprivation. Enjoy it while you can. — KEN KORMAN