The premise of the thought-provoking action-thriller “Limitless” has unlimited potential. It’s a delicious sell-your-soul-to-the-devil predicament involving a black market super drug that allows the recipient to tap into every ounce of their brainpower. Limitless riches and glory are guaranteed to follow.

The premise of the thought-provoking action-thriller “Limitless” has unlimited potential. It’s a delicious sell-your-soul-to-the-devil predicament involving a black market super drug that allows the recipient to tap into every ounce of their brainpower. Limitless riches and glory are guaranteed to follow.


Would you take the pill? Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) does. And he goes from a struggling and disheveled writer whose girlfriend (Abbie Cornish, in the forgettable token gal-pal role) just dumped him to a Wall Street whiz kid almost overnight. Along the way, he masters Italian and Japanese in a matter of hours, finishes writing a book, develops Bruce Lee-type martial arts skills and accessed memories and knowledge he never knew he had. Enhanced Eddie’s eyes are bluer, his suits are tailored, he walks tall and women fall at his feet. Life is good on NZT48 ... until it’s not.


In his quest for full frontal-lobe domination, Eddie gets involved in a socialite’s murder and tangled up with some bad folks – a Russian loan shark (Andrew Howard), and a creepy dude (Tomas Arana, billed as “Man in Tan Coat”) who follows him everywhere. Powerful people want to get their hands on Eddie’s stash, though it’s still a mystery as to how they know Eddie has the drug. It’s a leap of screenwriting faith, I suppose.


Director Neil Burger – working from a script by Leslie Dixon (“Heartbreak Kid,” “Hairspray”) – has created another magician with astounding powers just as he did in “The Illusionist.” Except this warlock is chemically dependent on a wonder drug. Without it, Eddie is frail, pale and foggy. That’s one of the bugs with the drug – really high highs and really low lows. So imagine the urgency and desperation that sets in as his supply dwindles.


As the plot grows more provocative, Cooper adeptly handles everything that Burger throws at him, including some fine tete-a-tetes with Robert De Niro, collecting a paycheck as a finance titan Carl Van Loon, who has called upon Eddie to broker the biggest merger in corporate history. The role is actually the legendary actor’s best work in a while.


Dixon’s script – adapted from the Alan Glynn novel – suffers a few contrivances, unrealistic happenings (no way Cornish can run on ice in those shoes) and unexplained characters. Some questions will get answered, others are left hanging. Don’t grow too fond of Eddie’s sickly ex-wife (Anna Friel); her part is a throwaway.


Despite the unevenness, there are enough twists and turns (who’s on the drug? who’s not?) to keep you interested. Cooper also finally proves he’s leading-man material. The actor, famous for “The Hangover,” carries the load here. He’s in every scene, flashing charm then desperation and those unforgettable baby blues.


“Limitless” starts out as a lesson in morality and by the end, Burger and company seem to have thrown their cautionary tale to the wind. Out of the gate it’s a smart film, but becomes an intellectual tease by the time it unsatisfyingly crosses the finish line.


Then again, we movie-going schlubs only use 25 percent of our brainpower, so perhaps the cop-out ending occurred so we don’t have to think too hard.


Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com.