- - Thursday, September 27, 2012

In an age of one-note — and no-note — action films, “Looper” is a rarity: a slick, neatly conceived high-concept thriller with a few too many interesting ideas.

That’s a pleasure for moviegoers looking for a slightly unusual conceptual mashup. But it also turns out to be a problem when the film doesn’t quite know what to do with all the ideas it has.

“Looper” begins in an economically depressed near-future world in which extreme wealth exists next to serious poverty. Major cities are overrun with vagrancy. Telekinetic mutations have developed in much of the population, but few can manage to do more than levitate a quarter.

Time-travel is on the horizon, but it won’t be invented for another 30 years. The organized criminals of the future, however, have decided that the easiest way to do their dirty work is to send it to the past: Anyone the future mob wants to off is sent back in time to be blasted at close range by a looper, who is paid handsomely to execute and dispose of unwanted future persons.

Sometimes those persons turn out to be former loopers who are sent back to be executed by their younger selves. The “loop is closed,” and the looper gets a big retirement payday — free to do what he wants with his life, at least until the day comes when he’s sent back to be murdered by his younger self.

That’s exactly what happens to Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper who one day finds himself staring down an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) who does not intend to die at the hands of his past.

It’s intergenerational warfare, sci-fi style, as well as a parable about the way our older selves pay for the decisions of our youth: The choices you make when you’re 25 can kill you when you’re 55. “Looper” just makes it literal.

The movie’s biggest strengths are its style and its world-building. Its biggest flaw is that it doesn’t quite know what story to tell within the futuristic world it’s built.

Director Rian Johnson’s 2005 debut feature “Brick” cast Mr. Gordon-Levitt in a detective noir grafted onto a high school setting, and in “Looper” he once again performs various feats of clever genre hopping, blending sci-fi, noir and hit-man tropes into something both familiar and fresh.

He also proves a formidable visual stylist, both in his direction and his production design. His economically limping future has a cool retro-noir vibe to it, and his shootouts are crisp, bloody and witty.

Frustratingly, the second half of the movie stalls out when young Joe is stuck on a farm with a single mom (Emily Blunt) and her strange son, who may hold a key to old Joe’s past. Mr. Johnson, who also wrote the script, becomes too enamored with his larger cycle-of-violence metaphor, and too reliant on his female characters as convenient plot devices rather than real people.

Still, “Looper” shows a lot of promise, and I’ll be looking forward to Mr. Johnson’s future projects. In a just world, a small but basically strong movie like this should provoke a virtuous cycle rather than a vicious one.

★★★

TITLE: “Looper”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Rian Johnson

RATING: R for bloody action violence, nudity, language

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS