The future haunts the past in "Looper," a hugely entertaining, brain-twisting thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as a time-traveling hit man who becomes his own target. Everything shifts and changes in this Rubik's Cube of a movie, including Gordon-Levitt himself. He's become one of Hollywood's most familiar faces thanks to his high-profile turn in "The Dark Knight Rises," but in "Looper" he undergoes an astonishing transformation that leaves him virtually unrecognizable.
Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a young assassin employed by the soothsaying gangster Abe (Jeff Daniels). It's easy work: Victims from the future suddenly appear before Joe's waiting blunderbuss, with payment conveniently strapped to their bodies. Eventually Joe will have to close his own loop, but as he wryly notes, "This job doesn't tend to attract the most forward-thinking people."
But his older self (a weary, wonderful Willis) doesn't plan to go quietly. Old Joe has a wife worth reliving for, and his best chance is to eliminate a shadowy figure who will become a future threat. While young Joe literally chases his own tail, he hides on a lonely farm with Sara (Emily Blunt) and her sweet but troubled son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).
"Looper" is the first wide release from writer-director Rian Johnson ("The Brothers Bloom"), an under-the-radar genius who cast Gordon-Levitt in the 2005 cult film "Brick." Returning the favor, the actor plays Joe under elaborate but almost invisible makeup, by Kazuhiro Tsuji, which subtly reshapes his face toward Willis-ness. It's an imperfect effect, but Gordon-Levitt's canny performance helps, particularly when the Joes face off at a diner (over identical plates of steak and eggs).
The relatively low-budget "Looper" will draw inevitable comparisons to Christopher Nolan's outsize "Inception" (also with Gordon-Levitt), but this is a funnier, rougher (and much shorter) movie. Johnson's action scenes occasionally stumble, but the devilishly clever script makes "Looper" a thrilling, dizzying ride.
PLOT In the future, a time-traveling hit man comes face to face with his younger self.
RATING R (violence, nudity, language)
BOTTOM LINE A fast-moving, brain-twisting thriller, with uncanny performances from Gordon-Levitt and Willis in what's almost a single role.