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In Looper, writer/director Rian Johnson crams in so many, it initially looks as if this sci-fi actioner might collapse under the weight of them all. Dystopian society, time travel, telekinesis, gangland killings — there are a lot of ground rules to keep track of here, much of them conveyed through the wobbly device of a narrator.

But then something remarkable happens: Looper plays fair with its own mind-bending construct. Balancing muscular action with the intellectual approximation of an M.C. Escher drawing, Johnson delivers on the considerable promise of his previous films, 2005’s Brick and 2008’s The Brothers Bloom.

We start in 2044, where time travel is about 30 years away, but still figures prominently in the lives of “loopers,” assassins hired by a futuristic crime syndicate to kill and dispose of targeted baddies transported from the future. It’s an insidiously efficient system: A looper waits in the middle of nowhere for a hooded victim to materialize from thin air, only to promptly blast the poor bastard to smithereens. And when it’s time to clear up loose ends, the looper is sent his future older self to kill.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises) is Joe, a looper who makes the costly mistake of failing to whack his older self (Bruce Willis, The Expendables 2) when he is supposed to. But old Joe arrives in 2044 with his own agenda to stop a certain future from taking shape, a quest that eventually involves a tough single mom (Emily Blunt, The Five-Year Engagement) living in a farmhouse.

Looper is fiercely inventive, buoyed by strong performances and an intriguingly complex screenplay. In the rarified air of great time-travel flicks, it deserves a place alongside The Terminator, Back to the Future and 12 Monkeys. —Phil Bacharach

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