Watching "Limitless" gives you a heightened version of the fun you have on TV's 'Mentalist" when the hero zips together facts, insights and observations to snag a killer or a crook. The movie's antihero, played by Bradley Cooper, isn't a detective. He's an aspiring writer who gets his act together with a drug that enables him to utilize 100% of his brainpower 100% of the time.

In the movie's most engaging set pieces, he manipulates data and memories like the squares on a Rubik's cube. His spiraling ambition -- he wants to re-energize the whole torpid free world -- propels him into becoming the right-hand man of an ultra-wily energy tycoon (Robert De Niro). Our writer-turned-mover-and-shaker thinks the drug can make him perfect. But it might just kill him.

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A few years ago, the director, Neil Burger, got the most movie-star-like performance out of one of our great actors, Edward Norton, in "The Illusionist." Here Burger gets the most great-actor-like performance out of one of our best movie stars, Cooper. With breathtaking elan, Cooper goes from bedraggled and clueless to scalpel-sharp and spiffy. And, in a striking old-pro turn, De Niro makes his corporate giant almost as cunning -- naturally -- as the protagonist is on medication. (The other members of the chipper cast -- including the equally warm and smart Abbie Cornish in the concerned-lover role -- seize on more limited opportunities.)

Burger gives the film the shoot-the-moon visual playfulness of '60s movies like "The Thomas Crown Affair." Trick lenses turn the screen into a bifurcated bowl; digital effects create boiling alphabet soups or cascading streams of numbers. Burger's method of externalizing thought isn't very different from Guy Ritchie's in the Robert Downey Jr. "Sherlock Holmes." But he's lighter and swifter -- more like the makers of the scintillating "Sherlock" TV series.

The director's fleetness and ingenuity take your mind off some cliches and stupidities, including a primitive subplot involving a scuzzy loan shark. The DVD and Blu-Ray contain a too-spare making-of documentary and an alternate ending. I think the theatrical ending is better -- far more clever and jolting. But it's still unsatisfying, since it leaves you wondering whether the newborn-genius' girlfriend will accept him no matter what -- and whether he will get away with murder. Still, it's invigorating to see a thriller with half a brain, guided by a director with a full bag of tricks. Burger is overdue for discovery. In "The Illusionist" he brought a sharp contemporary consciousness to fin de siecle Vienna: he imbued this fable about the subversiveness of magic with a unique blend of storybook romance, ruthless intelligence and erotic sting. His "Lucky Ones" -- a tale of three U.S. soldiers either on leave from Iraq or at the end of a tour -- was zesty in an entirely different style. It captured the country of the Bush years with the same casual vibrancy of all those low-budget movies that rediscovered real America in the 1960s and 1970s, like Jonathan Demme's "Handle With Care."

Burger has signed on to develop the movie version of "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune," an action-adventure video game about the search for El Dorado. It may be the one video-game film that I've ever looked forward to, because Burger is turning out to be the kind of director who can bring off commercial projects with wit, empathy and edge.

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