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It is the mid-21st century,Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a Looper, a low-level hitman working for mob bosses who live thirty years further into the future, a time when time travel has been discovered and subsequently outlawed. The mob has it's own illegal time machine in this future, and Joe's job is to murder anyone they send back and then dispose of the body, thereby eliminating a witness or turncoat before he or she technically even existed. Every Looper knows that one day his own future self will be sent back, and that he'll have to kill his older self so as to tie up loose ends. This is called "closing the loop", and when Joe's older self (Bruce Willis) shows up on that fateful day, Old Joe gets the drop on Young Joe and goes on the run. When present-day mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), who really doesn't like it when these things get messy, sends his cleaners to sort things out, both versions of Joe have to contend with an army of assassins as well as each other.

"Looper" is only director Rian Johnson's third film, following the fantastic "Brick" and its under-appreciated follow-up "Brothers Bloom", and is his first feature-length sci-fi pic, but I sure as hell hope it isn't his last, as it effortlessly makes the top list for the year's best. It takes an already inventive premise and builds upon it with a narrative sure-handedness that is sadly absent from the vast majority of sci-fi action potboilers these days. And this is real science-fiction, not an action movie or modern noir that just happens to have a future setting. It incorporates a number of sub-genres, from crime drama to dystopian cautionary tale to tragic love story, the story switching in and out with relative ease, and plays like a lost pop action novel from early in Neal Stephenson's writing career.

So often we end up with sci-fi movies made by filmmakers who seem to be little more than casual fans of the genre. The chief tell-tale sign is that an entire film's script will build its world around a single premise, as if every piece of clothing and every car has been designed in the shadow of one key shift in the paradigm. Not so here. We don't see evidence that any of the innovations or cataclysms of Joe's future have had an overriding effect, and the early scenes do a great job of establishing just how taken for granted things like overwhelming poverty, flying motorcycles, even major advances in the human genome would be. This gives the seemingly simple story a great deal of breathing room, and the script injects oodles of tiny but telling little details into the fabric of things. And Johnson doesn't completely ignore the opportunity to add a few highly-stylized flourishes here and there. Mob gunners wear black, quasi-puritanical uniforms and handguns are massive. Gordon Levitt's face, in fact, includes prosthetic work that helps him more closely resemble Willis, and it's arguably an unnecessary affectation, but once you're used to it the effect is eerily cool.

There are definitely echoes of "The Terminator" in Old Joe's mission once he reaches the "present", and if you're unable to forgive this you'll miss a pretty canny twist on Arnold's stone-faced modus operandi. Willis' Joe is a hardened killer who'd gotten a second chance at life just before being sent back, and watching him dole out brutal judgment on both the innocent and the guilty is much more emotionally charged. And none of this even skims the surface of the script's final surprise and secret weapon, and even if you see it coming you'll have to admit it's handled well.

"Looper" is one of those films that, like "Children of Men" or "District 9" before it, can help to prove to even the casual fan just how rich and invigorating real science-fiction in the movies can get.

God help the Len Wisemans and Paul W. S. Andersons of the world if Johnson decides to stick around in this genre for a while.

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