For sci-fi and thriller fans who believe you can never get enough of Bruce Willis on the big screen, writer and director Rian Johnson has just the film.
Looper, Johnson's exceptional time-travel tale, stars the veteran actor in one of his best roles, but the clincher for Willis admirers is there are two of him in the movie.
Well, more accurately, Willis is at his menacing best as an aged killer, Old Joe, who returns from 30 years in the future and confronts his younger self, played with utter magnetism by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception).
''He was a very good Bruce Willis,'' Willis said before the movie's launch at the Toronto International Film Festival this month.
Gordon-Levitt endured three-hour prosthetic make-up sessions each day to allow him to look like a younger Willis, but it is his artful reproduction of elements of the Die Hard star's dry delivery and barely restrained tough-guy swagger that completes the portrayal.
''I studied him,'' 31-year-old Gordon-Levitt says of his 57-year-old co-star. ''I would rip the audio off his movies and listen to them on my iPod over and over, and he [Willis] also recorded himself doing some of my voice-over monologues.
''But the main thing was getting to know him, spending time and hanging out having dinner and letting it seep in.''
The collaboration elicited special performances from both actors; a necessary element in a movie that is propelled by a mighty sci-fi concept and great human heart.
''I'm just grateful for it; it's one of the best experiences, not only of my career, but of my life,'' says British actress Emily Blunt, who underwent her own wondrous Looper transformation, becoming an axe-wielding, shotgun-toting, midwest mother.
''It was a magical atmosphere because everyone just knew we were making something special,'' she says. ''You could feel it buzzing off people's skin.''
The idea for Looper first came to Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) 10 years ago at a time when he was reading reams of work by Philip K. Dick, whose short stories have inspired numerous Hollywood movies, especially after his death in 1982, including Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall.
Loopers are assassins living in a ramshackle city in 2042 where the rich are corrupt and the poor are conspicuous. Their targets are delivered to them from 30 years in the future via a time machine. The killing process is starkly efficient and rarely goes wrong, especially for young Joe, but when a potential victim turns out to be his future self he hesitates, loses his man and faces the wrath of his bosses.
Joe sets out to recapture and kill his future self while Old Joe is on a campaign to change ''the future'' by eradicating a threat that would later take the life of his beloved wife.
''It's a movie that really examines and is critical of violence and how violence begets violence,'' Gordon-Levitt says. ''There are no heroes in this movie, no good guys or bad guys.
''[Old Joe] does some awful things but … he's trying to save his wife and I think that moral ambiguity is a big part of what makes Looper so interesting, and [Willis's] legendary career really lends to that ambiguity.''
Johnson, who wrote the movie with Gordon-Levitt in mind, says he used The Terminator for inspiration ''because it's so deft the way the camera uses time travel in that movie just to get the situation going, then time travel gets totally out of the way so that this conflict between characters can play itself out.''
The film also tips its hat to 12 Monkeys and other gritty sci-fi.
''You just read so many films that are completely derivative,'' Blunt says. ''Rian Johnson just had this highly original point of view and he's really uncompromising about it. He's a purely singular voice.''
Gordon-Levitt shares Blunt's enthusiasm for Johnson, with whom he first worked on Brick. ''I think he's one of the great filmmakers alive today,'' he says.
CRITICAL BUZZ Less of a brain stew than Inception, but still a complex sci-fi winner.
STARS Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt.
RELEASE Now screening.