09/24/2012 09:55 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2012

REVIEW: 'Looper'

On July 26, Cameron Bailey and Piers Handling, the directors of the Toronto International Film Festival, stated that the opening night film for 2012 would be Looper, a fast-paced action flick about time travel starring Bruce Willis. Not exactly what festival-goers are excited to hear when they're used to seeing foreign and independent features scouted by TIFF's large group of programmers from the world's most obscure crevices. Bailey and Handling defended their choice by stating that Looper is a smart, thrilling film written and directed by the very talented Rian Johnson, whose more independent work has been shown at the festival before. So did the titular movie live up to it's honor?

In Looper, the highly illegal invention of time travel is only soon to be invented. In the future of 2044, crime bosses send their captives back in time to be killed by loopers, assassins who keep quiet and receive a grand amount of money in return. The use of time travel is so prohibited that the crime bosses find the loopers in the future and send them back to themselves to be wiped clean from their records. The very stylish and very affluent Joe has been stashing half his pay away for the day he does the notorious deed, so he can fly to France to live the rest of his life. When the time comes, though, and his victim is without a headcover, staring at him dead in the eye, Joe is thrown off his game and gets knocked out. Joe must now find his older self, kill him and avoid being terminated by his employers for failing to perform his job as well. While attempting to pursue both impossible tasks, Joe stays with a tough mother, Sara (Emily Blunt) and troubled son he meets outside of the city, where he believes older Joe will find him for the reason he returned to the past.

Although Willis gets the leading credit, the person who has the majority of screen time is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who essentially becomes a younger embodiment of Bruce Willis in this film. Willis is quick and enticing as our main protagonist, but he doesn't have to do any of the hard work to create the likeness. From the way Gordon-Levitt walks, talks and holds his stance, the similarity is almost creepy, making the confrontation scene between older Joe and younger Joe in the diner all the more entertaining. But the actors who steal the show are the most unlikely -- Blunt shines in arguably her best and strongest performance yet as a resilient, authentic single mother who is written with equal importance. She is no Bond girl, but a well-developed character of extreme severity to the story. Somewhere between Johnson's original writing and Blunt's gifted acting, we are simply amazed. The actor who plays her son, Pierce Agnon, proves to be a tough competitor for scene-stealing, as the disturbed and precocious Cid. Often when lines are written for children to sound more mature, it comes off as unrealistic and unconvincing, but this kid makes it work and we never doubt his irregular wisdom for a second.

The characters are only one of the many elements that makes Johnson's layered and smart script so laudable. He makes the smartest action flick for the everyman and so easily spans all genres of film. Yes, we are given a thrilling, suspenseful, load of adventure, but we get an emotional drama, a subtle love story and even the most genius moments of humor when needed. The plot manages to be complex and cleverly interwoven without confusing or catching us off-guard with twists. Every time there is an exciting turn in the plot, it feels gradual and understandable to the audience. Johnson does not make his story predictable but fills us with curiosity from the beginning so our minds can speculate all the different routes the film will go in.

You become so absorbed by the thoughtful script and relatable characters that you almost forget the film is technically science fiction. Rian Johnson has redefined the once-cheesy genre. Though the thought of time-travel reminds me most of Marty McFly and Doc Brown, Looper's slick, dark atmosphere avoids cliché while simultaneously not taking itself too seriously with provided appropriate humor. The film doesn't just take place in the future to have flying cars and time travel, either. Johnson has created an incredibly well thought out and smart futuristic backdrop to year 2044. There are realistic, interesting and creative elements of the future Johnson has imagined.

The beyond-intelligent action of Looper that keeps you on the edge of your seat is as commendable as the profound characters, who stay with you long after the credits roll. The film thrives on all it's talent of actors, including the intimidating but funny Jeff Daniels as Joe's boss and the underrated Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Ruby Sparks) as Joe's co-worker and good friend, Seth.

Looper gives movie lovers much more than the typical fun action flick we asked for, and Handling and Bailey give TIFF-goers much more than expected. This is not TIFF making a choice to attract commercial audiences, but TIFF making a choice to have the most captivating opening night film in years. It's a hell of way to start off this year's jam-packed fest.