The trippy, violent sci fi actioner “Lucy” may run less than an hour and a half, but writer/director Luc Besson still manages to riff on almost every major science fiction movie ever made. Visual or plot points from everything from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Altered States,” “The Matrix” and “Inception,” to name a few, are around every corner. For better or worse, that doesn’t actually add up to a coherent story.
Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a party girl masquerading as a college student in Taipei. She’s dating a father’s nightmare (Pilou Asbæk) who gets paid way too much to deliver locked briefcases to a scary “businessman” named Mr. Jang (Choi Min Sik). Jang is stepping over dead bodies to wash his bloody hands with Evian water when we first meet him, which subtly clues the audience in to the fact that he’s probably a bad dude to cross. If you don’t get it from that (and if you don’t, you should be ashamed of yourself anyway), Besson actually intercuts archival footage of leopards hunting to make sure we know how dangerous Lucy’s situation is.
The briefcase Lucy has delivered contains the sort of of clear, plastic packaging that movie audiences have learned to identify as illegal drugs since “The French Connection,” although it contains bright, blue crystals that look like some sort of drain cleaner.
Lucy is then forced to be a drug mule, with one of the packets surgically implanted in her abdomen. When the bag ruptures in transit (she’s beaten by a thug whose sexual advances she rebuffs), Lucy immediately begins to develop superpowers. The average human, we’re told by an incessantly droning, but unforgivably underused Morgan Freeman, only uses 10 percent of their cerebral capacity, and that’s twice what most of our four-legged neighbors on the planet use. Lucy is gaining access to the rest of her brain at an exponential rate.
What does our heroine DO with this gift? Does she cure cancer? Solve the energy crisis? Stop global warming? Bring peace to Poughkeepsie?
Um, no. Not actually.
She sort of goes all Charles Bronson on everyone’s ass to get her hands on the rest of the drug, in transit in other innocent abdomens to various points on the globe.
To be fair, this drug is highly dangerous and her body is failing (or disintegrating or something), so it is kind of one of those matters of life and death. Still, one doesn’t sense Nobel Prize level aspirations in our protagonist. Not that you have to have Nobel Prize level aspirations in your protagonist to make a good movie, but here it only serves compound the problems of a script that doesn’t exactly live and die by the flawless logic of its narrative.
“Lucy” is vintage Besson in so many ways: first and foremost, we have the main character, a femme fatale with the emphasis on fatal. Besson has nursed an almost kinky attachment to homicidal beauties since “La Femme Nikita,” and has put another notch in his lipstick case (with apologies to Pat Benatar) here. Much of “Lucy’s” charm, and make no mistake, there’s plenty, comes from his savvy casting of Scarlett Johansson, who after multiple appearances in Marvel movies as The Black Widow, is now instantly accepted by audiences in action roles.
Besson has also never demonstrated much patience with slow simmer suspense. He certainly doesn’t here. Even the average Marvel Studios origin movie, where the directors know all too well that the fanboys are champing at the bit for the hero to get powers and get into costume, take their time more than Besson does here. After a brief, unnerving and gravity-defying (cough - “Inception”) convulsion, Ms. Johansson has shed all trace of her dumb bunny party girl persona and is ready to start kicking ass.
While this is going on, Besson cuts frequently to Morgan Freeman delivering a college lecture on how much brain we use. No actor on the planet can deliver more gravitas laced with self-deprecating humor than Freeman, which almost hides the fact that he doesn’t actually have a role here. This is virtually a throwback to the science fiction films of the fifties, when a scientist character had to explain how rockets worked, or how to kill alien invaders, and a modern audience could well find itself longing for the far wittier animated DNA lecture that informed Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” As it is, Besson actually uses charts and visual aids to explain what’s happening to Lucy.
But once Lucy frees herself from her captors, who might as well be wearing “Star Trek” red shirts, Besson is off and running, and he does cinematic mayhem as well as anybody. A high speed car chase through Paris features some of the most thrilling auto gags in years. The increasingly trippy special effects as Lucy’s powers expand are well-executed and fascinating to watch. Besson is never dull.
He isn’t subtle or politically correct either. If you were to take away the distraction of the science fiction gimmick, he might be criticized for implicit racism - there’s a disquieting aspect of pulp magazine, yellow peril hysteria as a slavering horde of sadistic, rape-happy Asian gangsters chases a beautiful white woman in a tight minidress. There's a lot mumbo-jumbo interjected about time, immortality and the nature of the universe, but at its core this is a pulpy, action crime melodrama with well-intentioned delusions of grandeur.
The trailers for “Lucy,” which to give them credit show mainly footage from early in the movie, also sell a movie much closer to the Marvel Comics mold than what Besson has actually made. Darker than the advertising would suggest, as well as derivative and borderline incoherent, “Lucy” is fast-paced, well-made and surprisingly entertaining. But given that its main character has infinite brain power, this is a remarkably mindless movie.