Scarlett Johansson stars as Lucy, a party-ready American girl, whose trip to China is cut short once she hooks up with the wrong guy. What happens isn’t of the Brokedown Palace or Midnight Express variety, but a sci-fi spin on the issue of drug mules. If you haven’t seen the spoiler-heavy trailer, the genuinely crazy twists ahead will be a nice surprise.
I love Lucy. This is what a comic book movie would be like if it didn’t have to follow the constraints of neatly establishing a future franchise or following any “rules” of the genre (or medical science, for that matter).
After a dialogue-heavy opening, with a conversation establishing the film’s setting and Lucy’s scary predicament, the movie is off and running, never slowing down, hurtling from one bizarre scenario after another. It’s no mistake that this comes from writer/director Luc Besson, as it seems formed from pieces of his Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element. To describe what watching Lucy is like, I’d guess it’s a cross between Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Ken Russell’s Altered States. Take that as an affectionate nod to how adorably bonkers this is, as well as a warning to those who require logic stronger than that of an Looney Tunes cartoon, which this also resembles.
Throughout the first half, as Lucy’s journey becomes increasingly dire, Besson inserts footage of wild animals, nature and bits of Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman giving a lecture on the possibilities of the human mind. Cutting the distractingly documentary-like footage into the action doesn’t completely work, though at least Besson hasn’t lost his touch for eccentric filmmaking. The brisk first act is nasty, intense and proudly pulpy, as bodies pile high even before the action truly takes off. As with Besson’s other works, none of this is meant to be taken seriously–as if that were even possible in a movie this silly.
After losing his way 15 years ago, with his ambitious but botched Joan of Arc epic The Messenger, Besson seemed to drift from the spotlight. He made the occasional, awful movie like Arthur and the Invisibles and The Family, though Besson’s most frequent film work was co-writing and co-producing action films like Colombiana, the Taken and Transporter franchises, which all have his cinematic trademarks and storytelling DNA. Besson can be a real pop poet, as the best scenes from The Big Blue, Subway and The Fifth Element demonstrate. The latter featured a blue squid-like opera singer that may be the definitive image of Besson’s tendency to gloriously overreach.
Lucy is Besson’s best film since The Fifth Element, which also showcased a female lead performance so good, the film is unimaginable without her. Lucy is a much better action movie vehicle for Johansson than any of the Marvel features have provided her. Johansson nails the character’s literal struggle to maintain her humanity. Watch her closely during the knockout scene where she has a sad, reflective phone call with her mother; Johansson’s conveying a woman of guarded, mysterious intent is as intriguing here as it was in Under the Skin.
Although the plot asks us to consider what would happen if a human could use more than 10 percent of their brain, it’s merely a gimmick. Once we arrive at the point when Lucy exacts revenge on her captors, it becomes so anything-goes, the narrative possibilities that seem to spring from Besson asking, “why not?”
The problem with Bessons’s crafting something so fast and nutty is that characterizations are minimal, the wild ending is laughable and overly abrupt and, once again, Freeman has been cast to play Morgan Freeman instead of an actual character. Still, if any 2014 release understands that movies are about showing us the impossible and entertaining us above all else, it’s this one. It may be trashy and absurd but make no mistake, Lucy is fearless.