"Looper" is for those who found "Inception" far too easy to decode.
Writer/director Rian Johnson, the mind behind the challenging "Brick" and "The Brothers Bloom," tackles science fiction with "Looper," his spin on the time travel genre.
He succeeds in some glorious ways, from his sly depiction of life in the near future to the blasts of original action deposited expertly into the story. You never know what's coming next, what a rare and wonderful treat - for a while.
Midway through film's soggy second half you've stopped caring.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a character whose brief but effective narration sets up a story set in the near and distant future. He's a Looper, an assassin who bounces through time to eliminate people. His thug pals capture the people to be executed, throw a sack over their heads, and then send them back into the past where Joe is waiting to blast them to bits. Joe then incinerates the body and voila, the person is no more.
Seems futuristic people have implanted tracking devices in their bodies, so disposing of the dead without a trace is a chore.
Joe's gig isn't without its pitfalls. When his boss (an underutilized but excellent Jeff Daniels) tires of his assassins he forces them to close the Loop - to kill the older version of themselves. That guarantees a set life expectancy for his employees - 30 years, to be exact.
Trust us, this is the simple part of the film.
We haven't even met Bruce Willis yet, playing the older, wiser version of Joe. Nor has Emily Blunt, stripped of her signature British accent, appeared as a woman protecting a child with an ominous future.
"Looper" bounces back and forth to the future, all the while dropping burdensome dialogue that tries to explain what's happening at any given moment. The head-spinning still story crackles with authenticity. Johnson doesn't show off the futuristic elements, like motorcycles which defy gravity or communicators which make the iPhone look like a rotary model. Rather, he lets them exist on the screen without making them distractions.
Gordon-Levitt, aided by some mighty fine makeup, actually looks like a young Willis. He even duplicates the older actor's gruff demeanor. Those who chuckled at Josh Brolin channeling Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black III" will marvel all the more at Gordon-Levitt's performance.
The film's best scene finds the two Joes sitting at a diner, exchanging easy banter as well as some very serious threats. If only the rest of the film could maintain that sense of danger, the culmination of all that time travel talk.
A yarn this complicated makes character development a challenge, one of many obstacles Johnson simply can't overcome. His reach is too exhausting here, another case of a filmmaker whose mind runs faster than necessary.
If Johnson could actually dabble in time travel, he'd be wise to shore up the film's pacing woes. Once Blunt's character appears, "Looper" goes into narrative slow motion, interrupted by some Johnson's masterful action.
"Looper" demands repeat viewings just to unlock all its moving parts, but it's doubtful the second and third time will yield the pleasures the best science fiction reveals. Even a potentially tender ending is rendered emotionless with all of the twists and head fakes.
"Looper" reveals Johnson as a filmmaker of almost limitless talent, but even great visionaries must respect the boundaries of the medium.
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies