Having reviewed Limitless on its theatrical run, the main body of this has largely been culled from that previous review, with some tweaks and additions.
So earlier this year I had a whole string of Robert DeNiro titles to cover. They included the two of the method master’s greatest films – Raging Bull and Taxi Driver – as well as two new productions to add to the legend’s film history: Little Fockers and Limitless. It was interesting to see what had become of the man as his films had been a little lacking in quality in recent times – and, surprisingly, it was Little Fockers that stood out as having the stronger contribution from him. I found that, unfortunately, despite the fact that he had quite a lot of screen-time in the trailer for Limitless, his role in the film was actually pretty inconsequential. It was clear that it wasn’t his movie, and that he was just along for the ride. But, perhaps more importantly, was the ride actually any good?
Eddie is a broke writer, living in his messy New York apartment seemingly unable to write a single line of his latest book, despite it being funded on commission. His girlfriend has had enough: he’s a mess, and he’s a total loser. A chance meeting with his ex brother-in-law, Vernon, suddenly offers Eddie an opportunity to turn everything around. By taking just one small pill. Supposedly FDA-approved, it is designed to tap into the portion of the brain that lies dormant for the most part of our daily lives, and enable the user to function at a much higher level. Eddie’s dubious, but he figures that things can’t get any worse, and promptly pops the pill. Pretty soon he starts seeing the world in a different light – literally everything appears brighter and clearer; he’s able to think his way out of any situation; seduce any woman, get anything he wants. Hell, he writes half his book in just one night. And then, the next day, it’s back to normal, dull Eddie. No motivation, no energy, no clarity. He hunts down Vernon to get more pills but discovers much more than he expected – he gets his pills, but at a cost. Headaches, nausea and long memory lapses ensue; and pretty soon the authorities are after Eddie for a crime he may or may not have committed, and dangerous loan sharks are on his back for money he borrowed. He’s also not the only one who desperately wants the pills – and will do whatever it takes to get them.
Limitless is based on the 2001 sci-fi novel, The Dark Fields, by Alan Glynn. The production originally went by the novel’s title – a reference to any areas of the brain which are sporadically inactive, no doubt – but was changed for release; and, as far as I can tell, it follows the plot quite closely. It’s a great premise, so I can totally see why Film Studios grabbed at the chance to develop the material for the Big Screen. Really, who wouldn’t want to pop a pill and have 100% clarity, 100% memory recall? In fact, it feels like two thirds of the movie is dedicated just to exploring these ideas – i.e. what would you do? The possibilities are, indeed, limitless. Director Neil Burger (who gave us the underrated Houdini-esque gem, The Illusionist) goes into Tony Scott overdrive here when it comes to the stylisation – and it works. He shows us the effect of the drug through fish-eye perspectives, zooming out (and in) and varying the speed of the film, all the while playing with colour and saturation and leaving viewers themselves illuminated by the effects.
And whilst the journey that we are taken on follows all of the requisite genre tropes – flash new kid on the block rides high on drugs and then massively crashes and burns, with corrupt businessmen and deadly loan sharks on his tail – it is still a stylish, fun ride, where every step may be well-trodden, but still looks and feels different. A big part of this is as a result of lead actor Bradley Cooper’s central performance, driving the movie with a witty narration, and coming across as fully convincing, both as the down-on-his-luck pre-drugs Eddie, and the suave, intelligent and impeccable new Eddie. Sure, I thought A-Team wasn’t great, but Cooper’s retained interest ever since his standout effort in the hilarious Vegas stag-night road-trip, The Hangover (though he still couldn’t save the sequel), and certainly seems more than capable of holding his own in what is, essentially, a one-man production.
Abbie Cornish (somewhat wasted in Sucker Punch) flits somewhere between Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman (at least looks-wise) as the beleaguered (ex-)girlfriend who is concerned about just what Eddie is doing to make himself so much ‘better’; and Robert DeNiro? Well, he doesn’t actually get all that much screentime – and even less character-development. We get a couple of brief DeNiro-style lines delivered, but they really don’t go anywhere with the character, and the end confrontation seems like an anticlimactic afterthought, rather than a punchy conclusion.
In fact despite its promising premise, there’s no denying that Limitless falters almost fatally when it hits its end run. There’s a point at which I was personally totally taken out of the movie – for those who’ve seen it, it involves blood – and after this scene the narrative never appears to recover. Things swiftly go downhill and it feels like the writers had no idea how to finish the movie, and instead chose to just rush things through to an ending, any ending. A little more thought could have further hammered home the parallels between the book Eddie was writing (subtly called Illuminating the Dark Fields – a nod towards the source novel) and what was happening to him in real life; or better promoted the allegory between Eddie’s supposedly beneficial drug addiction and modern culture itself, which frequently relies on regular pharmaceuticals to ‘enhance’ daily lives. Even if they didn’t want to make this much of a thinking-man’s movie, they could have further developed the chess-game shenanigans between Eddie and DeNiro’s world-wise business mogul, instead merely touching on what could have been the most interesting third act plot developments on offer. Hell, they don’t even fully address the issues raised by Eddie’s girlfriend – he’s just not himself anymore – instead often giving us what feels like an insight into a charming, smart guy who is also a bit of an asshole because he’s addicted to cocaine (obviously not the drug they use in the movie). Are we really supposed to want to be like this?
All in all Limitless is a fun watch, a great concept which is stylishly brought to the screen to engage you visually and aurally, and which moves at such a pace that you seldom have the chance to take a breath. Ably driven by a charismatic lead and some nice supporting cameos, it will likely entertain throughout, and is only let down by a poorly-conceived third act, where it just doesn’t look like anybody had a clue how to satisfactorily round things off. Apart from the inherent meh-factor caused by such a vapid conclusion, it’s a pretty good watch.
It should be noted that this is the UK 15-certificate release which sports just the UK theatrical cut – identical to the US PG-13-rated theatrical cut. The US Blu-ray release offers a choice of either the theatrical cut or a longer unrated extended cut, which promises more sex, violence and bad language. Whether or not that makes it a better film is another question, but having the option to watch either would surely be preferable and yet. Ironically, the Tom Cruise / Cameron Diaz spy caper Knight and Day was only ever released on Blu-ray in the US in just its theatrical cut form, where we in the UK received both that and an extended cut on Blu-ray – here the roles have reversed and we are once again a step behind the Stateside release. I shall be taking a look at the Unrated US variation later this month.