'L ooper" proves what goes around comes around. In this brainy, brutal science fiction noir time travel exists -- though only in the hands of future criminals. The gangsters of the 2070s use the outlawed technology as a waste management system.

Since it's impossible to beat their era's advanced forensics, they send their enemies back 30 years to the sunny Kansas cornfields, where "loopers" whack them and burn the bodies.

Just so there are no loose ends, it's understood that one day the looper may have to off his future self. Those who don't "close the loop" are punished in a manner so creatively horrible that failure is not an option. Meanwhile, it's drugs, decadence and depravity in grungy, dystopian Kansas City.

Rian Johnson's film delves into the ethical, practical and emotional dilemmas this arrangement poses for its protagonist, a callous hit man named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, dapper and heartless). The sociopath gets a tough lesson in karma when he finds his gun pointing at the future version of himself (Bruce Willis). When Joe fumbles the rub out -- wouldn't you? -- the film becomes a dark manhunt thriller with a steadily tightening grip. Old Joe knows something about the future, and its tyrannical mob overlord "the Rainmaker" that makes him desperate to knock history off its train tracks.


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Old Joe tries to reason with his young double, but neither sees much in the other that he likes. Young Joe's pursuit of the fugitive brings him to the farm of shotgun-toting mom Sara (Emily Blunt) and her talented son (riveting Pierce Gagnon), who offer him a last chance at redemption. It arrives in a form that is painful but appropriate.

"Looper" gives us a glimpse of a world where some things have changed (there are hover bikes and mutant telekinetic prodigies) but more is a warped extension of today. Future Kansas is a ghastly economic dead zone while Shanghai, where several key scenes take place, is a cutting-edge Shangri-La. Jeff Daniels plays a smiling-barracuda mafia emissary from the 2070s who warns his young hit men, "learn Mandarin."

Nothing in Johnson's past prepared me for the impact of this film. His hardboiled 2005 high school murder mystery "Brick" was a clever stunt, while his con man romance "The Brothers Bloom" was a cloying exercise in arthouse whimsy. Here the writer/director isn't showing off but knuckling down.

The plot is Swiss clockwork, yet Johnson takes time to develop powerful characters. He's visually in command of his material, giving us scenes that resemble Andrew Wyeth landscapes, others that echo mobster anime, and a handful like nothing you've seen before.

The film borrows expertly from "12 Monkeys" and "Terminator," sidestepping the logical paradoxes that can gum up even the best time-travel story. Old Joe tells his young self not to start asking questions or "we'll just end up making diagrams with napkins and straws." It's possible to nitpick "Looper's" storyline, but, the set-up is so confident you willingly suspend disbelief. Johnson wears his new maturity with confidence, delivering a tense, twisty story with an unexpected emotional wallop.