There’s an underlying sense of brooding paranoia throughout the new stylistic action-thriller Limitless that’s begging to burst through the screen. A little voice behind the projector screaming with a suit-and-tie studio executive’s hand concealing the mouth; what it’s yelling: “Let me embrace the darkness!” Limitless occasionally flirts with the idea of melding the nihilism of David Fincher with the hyperactive editing and scene juxtaposition of Danny Boyle, yet in the end the film never goes for broke in that sense.
Neil Burger—the director of 2006’s impressive magician head-scrambler The Illusionist—pushes the envelope to surprising effect here and there, and star/producer Bradley Cooper handles the lead role with a confident gusto. Cooper’s work here should prove to naysayers that The Hangover star has more than enough charisma to headline a project. But, ironically, Limitless seems held back.
The script, written by Leslie Dixon (of, oddly enough, Hairspray notoriety), is lively adaptation of Alan Glynn’s 2001 novel The Dark Fields; the book’s title says it all. Initially, Burger’s film carried the same name, but eventually the moniker Limitless came into play. One could assume that big-wig executives felt that The Dark Fields wasn’t as inviting to mass audiences as Limitless.
Its existing name sounds like the title of an ’80s hair band stadium anthem, not a particularly dark tale about a struggling writer who stumbles across a black market drug known as NZT, leading to enhanced intelligence and stock market dominance but also near-death sickness and a gangster-issued bulls-eye on the back of his head. For a movie that features Cooper slurping a pool of fresh blood just to get his NZT fix, The Dark Fields feels much more appropriate.
An issue such as a wrongly chosen title isn’t a deal-breaker, of course—it’s merely indicative of a larger problem. Save for a woefully happy and unfitting ending, Limitless gets by on its kinetic energy and self-assured performance from Cooper. His character, Eddie Morra, starts off as a wannabe sci-fi novelist struggling to fulfill the writing part of his first book contract and walking around looking like a Seattle grunge rock reject. His successful girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) has also just dumped him due to his lack of direction and slacker ways.
Eddie randomly bumps into his ex-brother-in-law, a corporate drug pusher who introduces him to NZT. The bro-in-law is promptly murdered, however, leaving Eddie with a loaded supply of NZT. Thanks to the drug, a little clear pill, Eddie’s brain power enhances to full strength, which he uses to master stock trading, rake in the big bucks, and catch the eye of a financial guru (Robert De Niro). But then gun-busting thugs out to kill him for his NZT supply begin stalking him, and Limitless turns into an effective exercise in paranoia.
Eddie Morra is a well-chosen role for Cooper, a guy who’s mostly been known for cocksure playboy characters. Anyone who’s seen the better-than-you’d-think, and curiously titled, 2008 horror flick The Midnight Meat Train, though, should know that he’s a solid leading man; in Limitless, he’s found the right platform to display both his assertive swag and layers of vulnerability.
He also has a wonderful female co-star in Cornish, an actor’s actress (as seen in films such as Stop-Loss and Bright Star) who brings her usual flair to a limited and somewhat thankless role. She does, however, get to slice an NZT-hungry thug’s cheek open by twirling a little girl’s ice skate across his face while the kid is still wearing it—a scene that’s as ridiculous as it is badass. Applause should also be extended toward Anna Friel (Land Of The Lost), showing up for a brief scene as Eddie’s broken-down ex and knocking it out of the park.
And then there’s Robert De Niro—if nothing else, his presence does seem to inspire the younger stars to elevate their games. Too bad that De Niro coasts through his scattered scenes on autopilot, disconnected from the story’s intent and delivering lines like he’s got a train to catch once the cameras stop rolling. It’s no surprise, then, that De Niro figures prominently in the aforementioned bad ending, which wraps Limitless up on a rote and unnecessarily cheesy note.
The movie’s coda is so glaringly off because the climax that precedes it is so unexpectedly bonkers and well-played. The pushy goons finally come face-to-face with Cooper, who’s on the ledge of a skyscraper’s rooftop, ready to end it all. The scene erupts into a Grand Guignol-like shootout, showing that Burger has what it takes to handle a conceptual thriller of this nature. In his past films, Burger stirred viewers with controlled poise; with Limitless, however, the gloves come off.
Through kaleidoscopic image enhancement and psychedelic editing, several of the film’s more stylized bits present its New York City setting with the same prism effect as the “Star Gate” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not nearly as incredible, of course, but still pretty slick. Additionally, a fight inside a subway station impacts with extra oomph in Burger’s hands; as Cooper’s Eddie gets all Jason Statham on a bunch of ruffians, the NZT in his system flashes Bruce Lee movie scenes and how-to fight tutorial videos in his brain, footage Burger intersperses with each kick and punch. It’s a rather inventive moment.
It’s just tough not to wish there were more balls-to-the-wall scenes of that ilk. There’s much at play that hints toward the Requiem For A Dream that Burger had in him, but the drug nightmare that should’ve been is played too delicately for its own good. There’s too much male empowerment propaganda—Imagine how awesome it’d be to score with endless chicks, strike it rich, and drive fancy cars all from using an itty bitty pill! A more lasting imprint would’ve been reached by a predominantly Illegal drugs are bad and using them to play God could lead to anything but happiness theme. In Burger and Cooper’s capable grasps, Limitless is an ultimately worthy but nowhere near superlative film; it pushes the envelope just enough to leave a fingerprint, but not hard enough to indent one’s memory.