Blend of sci-fi suspense, everyday 2044

There's an old Firesign Theatre album called How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All. The central conceit of Looper, Rian Johnson's slam-bang blast of a time-travel thriller, is kind of the flip side of that: How can you be in the same place twice when you're being played by two actors who don't look anything alike.

Set in a (yes) dystopian 2044, when urban cores are acrawl with aggressive panhandlers, and cars and motorbikes pretty much look like they do now, only more banged up, Looper is about Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a twentysomething guy in Kansas City who makes his living, a lucrative one, killing people. The target materializes in a field, sent from the future, hog-tied, a sack over his head. Joe stations himself in a clearing at the appointed hour, readies his blunderbuss, and then - bang - blows the victim away and takes the silver bars, his payment, strapped to the dead man's back.

Time travel is illegal in 2044, and like a lot of illegal things, it's a big-money operation run by the mob. Between jobs, Joe busies himself learning French (he's thinking of a move to Paris) and visiting a dance club where a girl named Suzie (Piper Perabo) offers her services for him, naked. The life of a looper isn't all that glamorous, though, and it has its serious downside. There's a clause in the contract that says you may, at some point, be required to kill your future self - this is called "closing your loop."

And this is what happens one day to Joe, except that when Old Joe shows up among the crops, things go amiss. Young Joe doesn't kill Old Joe, and Old Joe is off and running - 30 years in his own past. And Old Joe is played by Bruce Willis, who knows a thing or two about time travel and dystopian futures (or pasts) and running for your life. See 12 Monkeys.

Johnson, the talented writer/director (who teamed with Gordon-Levitt in the far-more-modest high school noir Brick), has clearly seen 12 Monkeys, too. Not to mention The Matrix and Inception. The paradoxes and ripple effects of crisscrossing the space-time continuum are daunting, and it's good to have a few reference points. Late in Looper, when a highly telekinetic kid starts levitating things, it really does look like Christopher Nolan had wandered onto the set and taken over.

Speaking of telekinesis, this is an ability that quite a few folks have developed in the mid-21st century. It's a mutation, but mostly it's used to float coins and impress the girls. But then there is Sara (a very good Emily Blunt), who lives out on a farm, where she is mother to a strange child named Cid (Pierce Gagnon), warding off wandering hobos with a shotgun, and mauling a tree stump with an ax. Sara and Cid figure prominently in Looper's second half, as do Cid's "TK" powers, though the less said about who they are and how they fit into Johnson's tricky, trippy plot, the better. (And I'm not sure I can explain it, anyway!)

Gordon-Levitt wears prosthetics that change the slope of his nose, the curl of his lips, the cut of his brow, to make the younger actor and Willis seem like perhaps they could be the same person, separated by decades. When the two Joes meet in a diner to discuss their fate - or fates - Willis throws his cross-eyed glare at Gordon-Levitt, who deflects the gaze with his own piercing stare. They also have steak and eggs.

Looper grounds itself in the commonplace realities of moments like this, and then takes off on wild flights of science fiction-y suspense. The combination is cool.

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Directed by Rian Johnson. With David Jensen, Tracie Thoms, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Garret Dillahunt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Noah Segan, Jeff Daniels, Piper Perabo, Paul Dano. Distributed by Sony Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 58 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content).