Limitless (Film Review)
3 out of 4 stars
Is there such a thing as a true genius, or does everyone have hidden talents within waiting to be unlocked? These are questions which are at the heart of ‘Limitless’, one of the year’s most viscerally exciting action thrillers to date. Despite not living up to its full potential due to a pedestrian script, ‘Limitless’ nevertheless boasts an outstanding lead performance by Bradley Cooper, immersive visuals, and a thought-provoking overall premise that should stir debate in viewers long after they leave the theatre. Without a doubt, ‘Limitless’ is solid thriller which should easily captivate its audience.
The story’s protagonist is Edward Mora (Cooper), a depressed, down-on-his luck New York author suffering from major writer’s block. In fact, with his shabby clothing, unkempt hair, and sad eyes, Mora looks more like a street bum, frequently getting mistaken for one as he walks along the streets of Brooklyn. However, Mora’s life will change forever when his brother-in-law Vernon, a former drug dealer, offers him a newly developed pill as a gift: NZT. One of the most top-secret compounds in existence, the drug allows the user to access 100% of their brain power, essentially turning him or her into a genius.
Almost instantly, Mora’s personal life and career begin to improve radically. Now possessing superhuman memory and focus, Mora is able to complete an entire novel in four days, as well as charm his ex-girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) back into a relationship. Within a week, he’s made over two million dollars at the stock market, earning himself a position as chief financial analyst for Wall Street tycoon Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) inthe process.
However, Mora quickly realises his success will come at a price. Only mere minutes after selling him the drug, his brother is murdered by a mysterious assassin looking for the compound, now in Mora’s hands. Before long, every criminal organisation in the city is searching for Mora and the formula, putting the lives of him and all his loved ones at risk. Struggling for survival and battling an addiction to the drug, Mora must use all of his strength and wits to survive and hold on to his newly-realised dream.
If there’s one reason for the success of ‘Limitless’, it’s lead star Bradley Cooper’s nuanced performance. As the improved post-pill Mora, Cooper exudes rugged charisma and cool, romancing women, dispatching thugs, and negotiating corporate takeovers so suavely that James Bond would be envious. As the depressed Mora however, the ‘Hangover’ star is barely recognisable: sporting a flabby belly, sallow skin, and long greasy hair, Cooper’s very face itself seems to radiate melancholy. The fact that Cooper can handle Mora’s transformation in such believable manner is a testament to his skill as an actor, and provides an emotional hook to the story missing from most genre films.
Ironically, Cooper’s dominance in screen time and presence means there’s little development for any other characters. This is particularly true of Robert De Niro, whose aggressive and powerful Carl Van Loon is never fully woven properly into the story, a disappointment considering how enjoyable his performance is. All the other actors in the film fail to rise above their stereotypical roles, with Abbie Cornish and Anna Friel on hand as the token love interests and character actor Andrew Howard as a Russian gangster.
On a technical level, ‘Limitless’ truly lives up to it’s a title for a film made on a budget of less than $20 million. Perhaps its most impressive feature in this area is its cinematography: whenever Mora nears the end of his drug-fueled high, the camera itself suddenly starts to zoom forward frantically, giving the audience the feeling of sitting in a speeding car with its brakes broken. Similarly, the colour scheme of the film noticeably changes from the ‘normal’ world to Mora’s ecstasy paradise: the former has the dull-grey, monotone look of a graveyard, while the latter is filled with a vibrant, pulsating yellow hue.
These visual nuances, along with the movie’s foot-stomping electro score, provide much of the movie’s visceral tension. In fact, there are barely any elaborate stunts in the film at all, with most of the set pieces being simple foot chases or even verbal conversations given suspense through the film’s acting and atmosphere. Examples include the climactic shootout in Mora’s penthouse and the scene where Lindy is stalked through Central Park by an assassin, both of which bear more resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock than most modern actioners with their gritty, low-key approach.
Unfortunately, ‘Limitless’ falls short of being a true success due to its biggest flaw: an inane script. Despite possessing a unique premise, the screenplay by Leslie Dixon fails to tell a tightly structured story, eventually devolving into an aimless collection of action scenes by the film’s halfway mark. This lack of plotting and character resolution only builds to a peak at the film’s conclusion, which feels so false and simplistic that it almost seems disrespectful to the complex characters created by Cooper and De Niro.
Even if the narrative problems of ‘Limitless’ prevent it from being more than light popcorn fare, it’s still one of 2011’s most enjoyable films yet. If anything, it’s a testament to the talent of its rising star: as his first major starring vehicle since his breakthrough success in ‘The Hangover’, ‘Limitless’ easily confirms Bradley Cooper as one of the most promising actors of his generation and a guaranteed star throughout the next decade. Undoubtedly, ‘Limitless’ is a pulse-pounding treat for action fans from start to finish.
‘Limitless’ is currently playing in Hong Kong theatres and is available on DVD in Shenzhen.