The ultimate you-can-have-it-all fantasy — a pill allowing users to harness 100% of their brain power — turns into something close to a nightmare for a rags-to-riches author in the propulsive, unexpectedly funny thriller “Limitless.” Director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) and screenwriter-producer Leslie Dixon (“Hairspray”) take a joint leap into different genre territory, mixing Tony Scott’s dazzle and Martin Scorsese’s Gotham darkness, with just a few stumbles along the way. Bradley Cooper makes further strides toward major stardom, spelling excellent early spring returns and socko vid play.
First seen standing on the ledge of a Manhattan high rise, trying to escape a gang of killers, Eddie Morra (Cooper) ponders — in extensive and generally witty voiceover narration — the classic irony that once you’ve realized your dreams, there are knives at your back. Pic winds back to the beginning, with Eddie at his lowest ebb as he struggles to write a long-overdue book. A chance encounter on the street with Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), the drug-dealing brother of Eddie’s ex-wife, Melissa (Anna Friel), triggers a total reboot of his life.
Vernon explains to the skeptical Eddie he’s repping a new drug, NZT-48, that taps into maximum brain activity, firing up all those synapses. He gives Eddie a pill, resulting in the first of several scenes combining a heady mixture of wit, hallucinatory visual effects and a clever cinematic means of getting into the head of the central character.
Though based on Alan Glynn’s somewhat obscure 2001 novel, “The Dark Fields,” Dixon’s screenplay suggests a Philip K. Dick-style fiction — set in the present, with slight futurist twists — and is actually closer to the author’s spirit than the recent Dick adaptation “The Adjustment Bureau.” What makes the film so entertaining is its willingness to go far out, with transgressive touches and mind-bending images that take zoom and fish-eye shots to a new technical level, as the pill enables Eddie to experience astonishing new degrees of clarity, perception and energy.
Hooked, Eddie wants more, which means becoming Vernon’s errand boy until he finds the dealer brutally murdered. Eddie uncovers Vernon’s secret stash of NZT-48, and within days, he completes his book, masters the piano, works out like a stud and becomes fluent in a few languages (Cooper does a mean Italian and Mandarin). The catches? Making sure he doesn’t OD, getting past occasional blackouts and securing a steady supply of the drug. Plus, on-and-off g.f. Lindy (Abbie Cornish, underused) takes one look at her transformed guy in his Tom Ford suit and admits to feeling intimidated.
The film’s tone is momentarily thrown off by a poorly staged chase through Central Park, with Lindy trying to elude the so-called Man in Tan Coat (Tomas Arana), in a sequence that plays like a bad Brian De Palma spoof. More effective is the fable of Wall Street greed underlying the action, which develops engrossing layers thanks in no small part to the arrival of a re-energized Robert De Niro as financial tycoon Carl Van Loon.
De Niro and Cooper mix it up quite well, with the older thesp delivering possibly his best screen monologue in years as Van Loon portentously informs Eddie, whose sudden good fortunate has made him an ace stock trader, that he shouldn’t even think of trying to compete with him. Feeling heat from a bloodthirsty loan shark (Andrew Howard), Eddie sees his seemingly perfect world begin to implode, elevating the film to its most inspired, even crazed passage.
Going from grungy to ultra-suave with a corresponding shift in attitude, Cooper shows off his range in a film he dominates from start to finish. The result is classic Hollywood star magnetism, engaging auds physically and vocally, as his narration proves to be a crucial element of the pic’s humor. Howard registers strongly as a thug who maintains a disturbing credibility even at his most over-the-top, and Friel makes the most of a brief appearance warning Eddie of the drug’s potentially fatal side effects.
Cinematographer Jo Willems and a potent f/x team combine for a series of dazzling images that seek to alter visual perception in a way not seen since Scott’s “Deja Vu.” As if they’d taken a few pills of their own, editors Naomi Geraghty and Tracy Adams set a relentless tempo supported by Paul Leonard-Morgan’s keenly judged electronic score.