During the 90s one of the biggest names in action filmmaking was Luc Besson, the French director who gave us La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional, and The Fifth Element. I wouldn’t say he was ever a truly great filmmaker and all of his movies had certain flaws, but they all brought a certain French weirdness that differentiated them from other action movies. Then sometime in the late 90s Besson put his directorial career on hold and focused his efforts towards becoming a mogul. His company, EuropaCorp, has found great success by fostering a roster of younger French action directors who make two types of movies: bad French blockbusters made for the domestic market and mid-budget English language action movies that are indistinguishable from Hollywood films to those who aren’t in the know. As a producer he’s given us quite a few decent but unexceptional films like The Transporter and Taken which mostly serve as a reminder that the French are just as capable of making trashy nonsense as anyone. Recently though Besson seems to have regained some interest in sitting in the director’s chair and his latest film, Lucy, has become something of a sleeper comeback film for the guy.
The film opens in Taipei where we see an American ex-pat named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) having an argument with her boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbaek), who wants her to do him a favor and deliver a briefcase to a building for him. Suspicious of his motives, she’s reluctant to do this, but is forced to when he handcuffs the case to her arm and informs her that the only key is inside the building. She soon comes to learn that this case was intended for a Korean crime boss named Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik), who proceeds to kill Richard and more or less kidnap Lucy. The case was filled with four bags of a blue crystalized drug, an experimental synthetic form of a hormone called CPH4, and Jang intends to use Lucy and three other poor saps as drug mules to take these packages around the world. However, something goes wrong and the package sowed into Lucy’s stomach breaks, giving her a large dose of this drug and altering her mind. Suddenly Lucy starts to gain immense intellectual and telepathic powers. She comes to realize that only a man named Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) may be able to understand what’s happening to her, so she goes to Paris to seek him out but with Jang in hot pursuit.
There’s a fine line between insultingly stupid and endearingly insane, and Lucy is a movie that straddles that fine line for much of its short 88 minute runtime. If the movie has one borderline-unforgivable weakness it’s that it bases its high concept in some of the most shameless pseudoscience imaginable. It pulls out the same ridiculous “what would happen if you could use more than 10% of your brain” line that the lackluster 2011 thriller Limitless tried to use, but makes it all the more galling by putting the sentiment into the mouth of an actual scientist and throwing in other made up crap like the suggestion that dolphin echolocation is the result of an ability on the part of the aquatic mammals to use 20% of their brain… which would suggests that bats are similarly ingenious creatures. It’s possible to make a good movie out of similarly precarious notions but usually such films work hard to draw your attention away from the non-sense, this movie doesn’t do that, in fact it kind of dwells on its dumb ideas and kind of leans into them by having Morgan Freeman’s professor character pontificate upon them.
So, yeah, this movie is dumb as a bag of rocks… so why did I still have a decent amount of fun while watching it. Well, it’s probably because it’s made with a certain insane ambition that vastly exceeds the reality of what the movie’s place is supposed to be. Luc Besson is not content to merely be a movie about a chick who gains powers and then uses them to kick some ass (although it certainly is that as well), he also wants to make the film a 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque exploration of humanity taking the next step in human evolution. Throughout the film he cuts to a lot of stock nature footage as a means of tying the onscreen action to the chaos of animals operating within nature and then contrasting this to the next level of consciousness that Lucy starts to achieve later in the film. Then later the film makes the most unexpected use of a dinosaur in a film since The Tree of Life.
Those uninterested in the next stage of human evolution will still find some action sequences and effects to enjoy in Lucy. The film is, in practice, almost like a live-remake of the seminal anime Akira and like that movie it features a lot of wild telepathic effects that occasionally take the form of straight-up body horror, but more often just lead to Lucy straight-up dominating people with her powers. In fact, if this movie has any real flaw as a popcorn movie it’s that Lucy is a little too overpowering in it. It’s pretty clear around the time she manages to down an entire room full of people that these gangsters who are chasing her around are really no match for Lucy at all and it’s only through sheer contrivance that they haven’t already all been massacred by the third act. Instead this becomes one of those movies where the question isn’t so much “is our hero going to get out of this” as much as it is “how fantastical and violent is the solution to this going to be.”
When Lucy opened at number one it was celebrated in a number of think-pieces for “proving” that a woman could successfully open an action movie. This response seemed strange to me, firstly because it greatly exaggerated how hard it is to displace a horrible Brett Ratner helmed Hercules movie and secondly because it displayed a certain degree of amnesia. Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale, and Milla Jovovich had been opening trashy action movie years before Lucy came along, and what’s more the character of Lucy is not tremendously progressive. She’s a depicted as a fairly uninteresting and unexceptional person who just happens to have greatness flung upon her, pretty much through magic. This movie is not a benchmark for much of anything, but it can be fun if you’re willing to forgive a lot. At the end of the day it’s a series of cool scenes and images desperately searching for a better high concept to bring them all together. If Besson had just found a better reason for all this than the “more than 10% of your brain” drug, he might have really had something here. As it is, this is a movie with the dubious charm of a scientific manifesto that’s been written with great conviction by someone who doesn’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about.
**1/2 out of Four