Willis Scores in Thrilling ‘Looper’: Movies

The time-travel tale “Looper” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an hit man working for a mob that operates in the future. Photographer: Alan Markfield/Sony Pictures Entertainment via Bloomberg

The persnickety complications of time-travel are swatted away like so many butterflies in “Looper,” a terrifically inventive yarn too smart to get trapped in its own net.

One of the most engaging sci-fi films in years, Rian Johnson’s stylish display, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the same man, an executioner, separated by 30 years of hard living, plops us into a blighted, noirish urban landscape of 2044.

There, low-level mob hit-men murder hogtied, hooded victims sent back in time from the year 2074.

The executioners are called loopers, since they’ll eventually be required to kill their own future selves, thus eliminating evidence and “closing the loop” on 30 years of blood-money comfort.

Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, an ice-cool looper in 2044, with Old Hollywood panache and the barest hint of a conscience. He thinks twice before ratting out his fellow looper Seth (Paul Dano), who’s on the run after allowing his own 2074 self to go free.

Seth’s punishment by the mob is swift and gruesome in a scene that’s as horrific as it is gleefully, cinematically over-the-top.

Ruthless Goons

Naturally, a terrified Joe panics when he clumsily allows his own future self (Willis) to escape execution. Young Joe chases Old Joe as ruthless goons on flying motorcycles chase both.

That would be plot enough for any movie, but “Looper” adds another (and then some): For personal reasons, Old Joe is hunting down a future murderer, still a toddler in 2044, albeit one with “Carrie”-like powers strong enough to send his terrified, protective mom (Emily Blunt) scurrying for the safety of a steel-enforced closet.

Sounds silly, but “Looper” plays for keeps. We’re disabused (grimly) of any notion that cuteness guarantees child safety, and twist after twist -- including a thrilling moment when the little boy’s gifts become all too clear -- leave us dazzled.

Writer/director Johnson, whose earlier “Brick” showed the promise of his collaboration with Gordon-Levitt and cinematographer Steve Yedlin, exceeds expectations here.

Bulked Up

Willis, minus the usual tics and grimaces, is so good in his return to the action genre that we’ll forget “The Expendables 2.” Gordon-Levitt, bulked up, clinches his status as Hollywood’s most captivating young star; he makes a convincing anti-hero in spite of a fake nose and blackened eyebrows that do little to suggest any genetic relation to Willis.

And holding his own with the leads is a bearded Jeff Daniels as a time-traveling enforcer. Concealing a bone-crushing sadism beneath scruffy geniality, Daniels’s mob boss oozes concern when Young Joe daydreams about moving to France.

“I’m from the future,” he says. “You should go to China.”

“Looper,” from Sony Pictures Entertainment, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ****1/2 (Evans)

Maggie Gyllenhaal

“Won’t Back Down” is a feel-good union buster in which a mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a teacher (Viola Davis) try to turn around a failing school in Pittsburgh.

The teachers’ union does the work of the devil, circulating lies about the women’s efforts and orchestrating a smear campaign against the teacher.

The movie, directed by Daniel Barnz, has already attracted controversy, but its politics are a red herring. With small changes, it could just as easily argue the pro-union position.

It “argues” in the old Frank Capra manner, making the caring parents and dedicated teachers good-looking and spirited, their opponents sour and plain. Everything is broadcast in giant letters, so you never get to decide what to think or feel about anything.

In the past, Gyllenhaal has played down her saucer-eyed perkiness by lacing it with sultriness. Here she’s so effervescent her head could explode.

Davis delivers the same slow burn that gave her performance in “The Help” such dignity and power. A year later, it feels trademarked.

A school system that considers grinding up kids to be business as usual is clearly broken. Parents and teachers who try to throw a wrench into it are heroes. Boneheaded movies, on the other hand, are themselves business as usual.

“Won’t Back Down,” from 20th Century Fox, is playing across the U.S. Rating: * (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include N.Y. Weekend and Jeremy Gerard on theater.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE