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‘Looper’ Review: Stylish Time-Travel Tale That Loses Race With Clock

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s young-Bruce-Willis makeup is never not distracting in Rian Johnson’s latest

For a movie that’s concerned with the passage of time, “Looper” allows the pacing to get painfully flaccid in its middle section. More’s the pity, because the strong first act promises a smart and stylish movie about the vagaries of time travel.

While the stylish never goes away, the smart does, making this the second Rian Johnson movie in a row (following “The Brothers Bloom,” the writer-director’s sophomore effort after his Sundance hit debut “Brick”) that looks great but meanders while doing it.

In a requisite grimy-city-of-the-future, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “looper,” which is a very specific kind of hit man. Decades beyond Joe’s era, time travel will be discovered and immediately banned.

The only ones using it are mobsters, who dispose of their targets by sending them 30 years into the past so that Joe and other loopers can exterminate the unlucky saps and destroy the bodies.

When a looper “closes the loop,” it means he kills his future self, collects a big payday and counts down the three decades until his own demise. Working for mobster Abe (Jeff Daniels, amusingly playing against type), Joe squirrels away his money and dreams of running off to France, even though Abe tells him the action is in China.

In a clever shout-out, Abe operates out of a nightclub called La Belle Aurore, named for the Paris bar where Rick and Ilsa hung out in “Casablanca” before the Nazis marched into town.

Naturally, Joe is eventually called upon to close the loop, but his older self (Bruce Willis) isn’t going down without a fight. Future Joe met the woman of his dreams in Shanghai and watched her die before getting sent back in time, so he hopes to fix the future by changing the past.

All very well and good, and certainly the foundation for a fun little time-travel thriller — and for the first third or so, that’s what “Looper” is, from its stylish representation of the near future to the clever way Johnson lays out the exposition and the rules for the story. (Paul Dano’s character finds out the hard way what Abe and his goons do to loopers who fail to close the loop.)

But by the time younger Joe hides out at the farm owned by Sara (Emily Blunt) to lie in wait for older Joe, the movie starts bogging down in circular storytelling and general meandering, leading to a viewing experience that feels awfully padded at two hours-plus. And none of this is helped by the idea of Emily Blunt as a woman who lives on a farm: That’s the second-least convincing aspect of “Looper.”

Number one is Gordon-Levitt’s makeup job — rather than allow us to believe that the actor could simply age into becoming Bruce Willis, Johnson has decided to all but hide the “Inception” star under a thick layer of latex or CG effects or whatever it is that’s going on with his face. There’s never that magic moment when, say, you stop thinking “That’s Nicole Kidman with a fake nose” and instead decide, “That’s Virginia Woolf.”

From start to finish, Gordon-Levitt’s face will make you think, “Why does he look like the love child of Kirk Cameron and Robert Forster?”

(Besides, it’s not like we don’t know what Bruce Willis actually looked like 30 years ago. Couldn’t they just have put Gordon-Levitt into one of those white tuxes from the “Moonlighting” TV show and handed him a Seagram’s wine cooler?)

By the time the inevitable time-travel paradoxes start kicking in — how could that be there if in the new reality this was no longer the other thing? — “Looper” has long since wasted its own potential.

When it eventually pops up on cable, you’ll have the option of mastering time and space by watching the first 20 or 30 minutes and then turning it off forever.

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