Bruce Willis in "Looper."
Bruce Willis in "Looper."

Up to this point, the movie remains thoroughly engrossing for the way it demonstrates unbridled enthusiasm for its unique takes on various action-adventure formulas. Johnson's acrobatic camerawork swirls about his characters with a vibrant pulse that sets his imagery apart from the countless other near-future noirs unleashed since "Blade Runner." An early chase scene between the two Joes, replayed from their varying points of view, sets the bar high early on; it's matched later by a tense showdown between the two men in a coffee shop, where both vow to stick to their respective missions. Johnson's construction of ambiguous heroes and the implied idea of a man pitted against his former self maintains the thematic implications of the scenario with ease.

Even then, however, indications of the troublesome later scenes begin to emerge. Willis' low-key performance is often devoid of any expression whatsoever, giving the distinct impression of a tired actor phoning it in. Gordon-Levitt is convincing enough, but the decision to slather his face with makeup so that he looks more like the famous actor cast to play him in the future stands out as the one of many early distractions. Another is a subplot involving the development of telekinesis by countless future dwellers, a separate sci-fi conceit from the time travel factor and one that never quite synchs with the rest of the plot (even the name, the "TK mutation," underscores the fill-in-the-blank quality of the idea).

Such qualms can be forgiven, however; the major issues with the final scenes cannot. Pursued by the same authorities intent on eliminating his future self, Joe flees to cornfields, where he finds a young woman (Emily Blunt) and her alleged child, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), possibly an early version of the proverbial Rainmaker. Joe knows that older Joe will eventually come to this countryside setting, so he decides to wait it out. At that point, "Looper" halts, arriving a decidedly less interesting place devoid of the vivacious storytelling that precedes it. A creepy child seemingly stolen from the plot of "Bad Seed," Cid is an archetype that belongs to a different kind of movie, so his borrowed status stands out -- as does the movie's brash, thundering finale, where a barrage of violent showdowns and a half-baked twist stand in stark contrast to the brainier events that take place early on.

Nevertheless, it would be a disservice to discount the spectacular vision that keeps "Looper" in motion. Steve Yedlin's cinematography and Johnson's icy screenplay demonstrate a fierce commitment to the prospects of intelligent science-fiction cinema, a feat largely ignored by contemporary American filmmakers. There's a adrenaline rush even in the problematic finish, an eagerness that drives the filmmaking so that "Looper" is thrilling to watch even when it falls apart.

Criticwire grade: B

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony will release "Looper" on September 28, having capitalized on buzz the film will undoubtedly receive as the opening night selection for the Toronto International Film Festival. Genre fans are likely to embrace the dystopic setting and the movie's attitude, so it stands a good chance at performing decently in wide release.