Review: Limitless (2011)

I always expect to dislike Bradley Cooper in movies. He projects the image of a cocky jerk and so whenever I see a movie with him in it, I expect to hate him, and, thus, his movie as well. But time and again, Bradley Cooper surprises me. He’s a good actor and Limitless is a very good film. This is not just because it’s slick and inventive with a neat concept, but also because it’s so enthralling as a movie. The concept is simple: Eddie Morra (Cooper), a hapless writer with no initiative, receives a mysterious drug called NZT that turns him into a genius. It could’ve been a by-the-numbers story about a normal guy who takes a dangerous drug that turns him into a genius capable of changing the world, but who eventually learns that he should really be himself and give the drug up. Luckily, Limitless lacks any of this hokey moralizing and tedious storytelling. Yes, the drug is dangerous. Yes, there are risks to Eddie taking it and he does make some mistakes as a result. But the film is not trying to teach us a lesson about being ourselves. Instead, the filmmakers understand that if a drug like NZT actually existed, no one would ever want to give it up, no matter the side effects and consequences. More importantly, the filmmakers understand that intelligence is merely the tool of an individual. Intelligence isn’t inherently good or evil and Eddie’s moral makeup before he takes NZT will determine his choices when he does take it.

Because of this, Limitless works as a smart thriller. It entices the viewer with its fast pace and increasing stakes. There are narrative surprises along the way, along with a few bold scenes that the filmmakers must’ve fought to keep in the final cut. One scene where Eddie struggles to find some NZT after a scuffle with a Russian gangster is the most obvious of these, but to say any more about the scene would be spoiling the fun. As well, unlike so many thrillers these days, Limitless doesn’t build until a climax and then slowly fade out. It keeps its momentum going the whole film, and although there are climaxes here and there, the ending suggests the story continues even once the film ends. This isn’t a way of opening up the possibility of sequels (although due to its financial success, I wouldn’t put it past the studio) but of giving the story a life that exists beyond the running time.

The film also works as ingenious wish fulfillment for the viewer. Who wouldn’t want to have access to a drug like NZT that could make you a genius? Seeing Eddie transform from schlub to superman is an enthralling film experience, but it also makes you wonder what you would be like with a little boost from such a drug. As well, the existence of NZT in a time when pharmaceutical companies and mood-altering drugs are so prevalent doesn’t seem completely implausible. It is scientifically impossible, yes, but it does have the hint of truth in it, all that a good film hook needs.

What I haven’t touched on is the film’s impressive visual style. The shots are clean and gorgeous to look at. There’s energy in the camera movement and the editing. The changes in the visual palette when Eddie is on NZT and when he is off it are obvious visual flourishes, but they aren’t distracting. As well, there’s a lot of innovative camerawork going on in this film. There isn’t room to discuss all of it here, but one visual flourish stands out. I can only describe it as a ‘limitless zoom’ where the camera sustains a zoom over vast geographical distance without breaking its momentum. The opening credits use it, as do a few other moments in the film. The effect is a little dizzying and obviously achieved through digital manipulation, but it is so innovative and engrossing that I was visually hooked from those opening credits on. It’s not everyday that you see a truly new cinematic technique at work. Perhaps the limitless zoom has been used before, but if so, I can’t place where. It works wonders here and only exemplifies the film’s strong visual style.

Limitless surprised me and it will surprise you. It’s smart, fast, and extremely entertaining. It’s also the case of a studio film doing the unexpected with its narrative and its technique. If Bradley Cooper can continue to impress like he does in Limitless and The Hangover, I think we have a bonafide movie star with some serious talent and charm on our hands. And if studios can continue to put out films like Limitless, I think we may be in a thriller renaissance too.

Limitless (2011)

Directed by Neil Burger; written by Leslie Dixon based on The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn; starring Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, and Robert De Niro.

8 out of 10