Based on Alan Glynn's 2001 novel The Dark Fields, Limitless is a thriller with a science fiction edge that sees a down and out writer unlock the maximum potential of his brain using an experimental new drug called NZT. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a scruffy loser living in a squalid New York apartment, dumped by his long-term girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) and struggling to start a novel. But after being given the mysterious clear pill by an old acquaintance, Eddie finds that not only can he quickly finish his book, but that everything is now different. On the drug the world looks better, Eddie dresses better, he learns new skills faster and his new-found confidence and wit ensure he is a hit with the ladies - and with big business. Within days Eddie is a phenomenon on Wall Street, using his time on the drug to get rich with a view to some bigger, undisclosed goal and soon attracting the attention of a business mogul (Robert De Niro), becoming part of his inner circle. But as the supply of the drug runs out, he discovers that NZT is not without disturbing - possibly fatal - side-effects. To make matters worse, Eddie also falls foul of a brutal gang of loan sharks and even attracts the attention of a relentless and brutal assassin. For a thriller comprising of the usual chases, gun fights and brawls, Neil Burger's film takes a little while to get moving. That's not to say it's slow or boring, but that it patiently establishes the character and allows Eddie to use NZT in some fairly banal ways before upping the stakes. It is some way in before Eddie c0mes across a murder and then it is a good while later that he finds himself in trouble, fighting for his life. Though we know that's where it's heading, as Burger starts the film near the end, showing us Cooper standing on a ledge about the throw himself off a high building to avoid a gang of gunman, but he has enough faith in the mental power of the audience to put the time into making us care about Eddie. Cooper is brilliant in as Eddie: charismatic, capable in the action scenes and with the acting chops to take the character from hard-up loser to something of a male empowerment fantasy with some degree of subtlety. He also has the rare gift of being able to play slick without seeming slimy or arrogant. And whilst many actors might have played "loser Eddie" in a gimmicky, exaggerated fashion, Cooper never resorts to affecting a distractingly odd speech pattern or strange mannerisms. It's around the actor that the film hinges, for all its compelling what-would-you-do premise. Not to talk in hyperbolic pull-quotes here but, in his small but pivotal role as the no-bullshit corporate head, De Niro gives his best performance in years. He doesn't do anything stellar (he's solid and quietly effective) but that's the refreshing thing. There is a conspicuous lack of mugging and here his legendary status as an actor is allowed to exude a degree of gravitas needed for this character. Cornish doesn't have a lot to do, but is likewise solid and has one quite inventive (if utterly absurd) fight scene of her own. There are some flaws of course, but none so severe as to damage the film's appeal. It's a little too reliant on voiceover, with that being the safest most literal option when telling a story about a character's mind - though some nice visual touches and imaginative effects do a good job of representing Eddie's NZT experience less literally. The villainous Russian loan shark (played by Welsh actor Andrew Howard) is a bit of a two-dimensional stereotype and the plot point that brings him into the story feels contrived. Most troublesome is the ending, which is remarkably, jarringly upbeat considering the sort of antics that have preceded it (Eddie does some messed up stuff on NZT) and the ominous tone up to that point. Limitless is a well executed and intelligent thriller which suggests, when the cinema going public finally succumb to that long-overdue Zach Galifianakis overdose, Bradley Cooper will be the Hangover actor left standing. It's also evident that Burger is a capable hand for exciting, character-based movies - a fact which could bode well for fans of the Uncharted video game series, which the director is now attached to bring to the screen. It's patient, cerebral and unpretentious pulp science fiction fare on a sensible scale. Extras Some nice high-definition special features make Limitless a decent Blu-Ray package, with two short but informative documentaries, a commentary with Neil Burger, an alternate ending and a trailer. A four minute documentary entitled A Man Without Limits sees cast and crew talking up Cooper's portrayal of Eddie, whilst Taking it to the Limit: The Making of Limitless is eleven minutes long, shot in the same split-screen, talking heads style, but looking over the project as a whole. Both are enjoyable and shed light on the process, though the latter overlaps with Burger's commentary track a bit. The commentary is dry but informative, low on funny stories and on-set gossip (the most you get here is Burger saying how well Cooper and De Niro get on), but high on detail about how particular shots were achieved and on the reasons behind the film's shifting visual style and other design choices. It can be a little fawning, with no chance to priase the actors going unexplored, but Burger comes across as genuine and intelligent. His insight into shooting in New York City is especially interesting, as it becomes apparent that the film's use of locations is spatially consistent and well considered. The alternate ending is a let down as it's disappointingly similar to the actual ending. My initial assumption was that it would be more downbeat than the oddly chipper ending of the theatrical release, but if anything it's sunnier and more reliant on voiceover. Limitless is released today on Blu-Ray.
A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.