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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Looper' is a great film on all levels

Looper

(R)

4 out of 4 stars

A crackling and hypnotic concoction of sci-fi, crime thriller, action/adventure, black comedy, romantic and family drama, "Looper" has just replaced "Little Big Man" as my favorite movie of all-time. "Favorite" doesn't necessarily equate to what I or others thinks is "best" and there are many other movies that are better on individual levels than "Looper" but few that are as collectively smart, fun, funny, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging. It also has one of the most moving final scenes in the history of film. It's what you value and what you choose to see.

Some have already chided it for not making sense, which is technically true. But based on that argument, NO science-fiction movie ever made can make sense. If you infuse the logic of sci-fi into the real world, sci-fi will lose every time. "Looper" succeeds where virtually all others fail because it establishes its own set of rules early on and sticks with them for the duration. Never is there an 11th-hour tweak in the script to accommodate a wrinkle that wouldn't otherwise fit. The plot is airtight for the entirety; every word, knowing glance, blink, silent passage and visual deftly propel the narrative. Any serious aspiring screenwriter should watch this movie as many times as possible.

"Looper" is the third feature from writer/director Rian Johnson and is closer to his first effort ("Brick") than his second (the vastly underappreciated con-man comedy "The Brothers Bloom"). All of Johnson's films have featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the '90s TV whiz-kid ("Third Rock from the Sun") who is quickly establishing himself as the industry's next major action star.

It is fitting, then, that Gordon-Levitt and former action king Bruce Willis play younger and older versions of the same character. The young Joe is a mob hit man living in 2044 Kansas and old Joe resides in 2072 Shanghai. From what we can gather, time travel was invented/discovered around 2060 and immediately outlawed, as to prevent any possible tinkering with the past.

As is often the case, the law doesn't apply to organized crime and they use a bootlegged version of the technology to toss their current problems back in time. The loopers stand at the ready -- usually in a desolate field -- and blow the discards away the second they arrive. Their paycheck (in the form of silver and sometimes gold bars) is taped to the victims' backs and all they need to do afterward is burn the evidence. Providing you don't have conscience, it's a relatively easy gig.

The big problem is that young Joe does have a conscience. Every day after work, he heads off to a bar in his retro garb and retro car where the unidentified drug of choice is applied via eye drops -- and Joe is a serious addict, as is his fellow looper and best friend Seth (Paul Dano). After a significant on-the-job screw-up committed by Seth, young Joe's career effectively comes to end.

If you feel you've been given too much plot information, trust me, you haven't. Everything above takes place within the first 15 minutes and you'll still have to wait another 15 before old Joe makes his first appearance. Even at the half-hour mark, Johnson's story is only in its birthing stage and there are at least four more major characters that have yet to be even mentioned.

Surprisingly, the back and forth between 2044 and 2072 isn't all that difficult to follow. Johnson uses a minimum of on-screen graphics to keep us acclimated and he has a veritable field day messing with the time structure. Some scenes are repeated from different perspectives and, in what feels like an homage to "Citizen Kane," decades pass by in mere seconds.

Continuity sticklers will also notice two significant inconsistencies between the two Joes. One of these shortcomings is occasionally remedied with escalating cosmetics and the other could have easily been fixed by the horizontal flipping of certain portions of the film stock. It's far from a deal-killer but is just big enough to be a mild distraction.

As brilliant and innovative as Johnson's screenplay is, seasoned movie fans will note more than a few similarities to other filmmakers and authors. There's some Stephen King, a lot of Philip K. Dick, the afore alluded-to Orson Welles, David Fincher, Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron and Terrence Malick. Johnson doesn't pinch or pilfer as much as he filters and derives inspiration.

There's nothing new under the sun, but with "Looper" Johnson paints that star with a slightly different shade of yellow and he has crafted one of the grandest examples of storytelling this medium has ever produced. (Sony/Columbia)