Lucy

July 30, 2014

Lucy-Scarlett-Johansson

After a decade of becoming one of the top producers of mid-budget B-movie actioners and directing a couple of poorly received and even less seen “personal” films, Luc Besson has made Lucy, a film that combines his best quality (women learning to kick ass) and his worst (“ideas”). To say it’s his best film since The Fifth Element is damning with faint praise, but it is, and it’s just as dumb. What it lacks in smarts, however, it makes up for in briefness of running time.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American student in Taipei dating a skeezy loser who handcuffs a mysterious briefcase to her wrist and forces her to deliver it to the shady Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik), who promptly has the boyfriend killed and sews some drugs for her to smuggle into her stomach. Before she gets a chance to deliver the goods, a ruffian kicks her, the drugs leak and then we’re treated to a lecture by Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman, of course) on that old canard about humans only using 10% of their brain and “what if we could use more!?” The drugs in Lucy’s system activate never-before-used parts of the brain and a handy intertitle lets us know when she hits the rounded numbers of 20%, 30%, and so on. As she gains access to increasing amounts of her brain, her abilities increase, including mind reading, telekinesis, and the manipulation of electromagnetic waves. The intercut lecture by Norman lets us on in this, even though it doesn’t make a lot of sense and at times the film seems somewhat confused as to what she can do in favour of a laugh or a fun moment. Lucy knows she has a limited amount of time before she dies, or rather, “dies”, and must track down the rest of the drugs from the other mules sent out with her.

This promises to be an action romp about a woman gaining powers and taking down her foolish foes, but Besson is interested in the metaphysical aspects of the concept more than anything else. Unfortunately, his ideas aren’t terribly well executed, as he doesn’t seem to know how to explore them without a flimsy action plot to hang it on. The Koreans continue to track her and the other mules down while she recruits a cop, Del Rio (Amr Waked) to help her get the drugs and then meet Norman for what is basically an expository lecture on what is happening and what will happen (the visuals, I guess, weren’t enough to tell us). Likewise, the action, such as it is, is brief and only intermittently effective – indeed, it often feels like an afterthought for the characters if not the filmmaking.

Holding the ridiculousness together is a rather committed Scarlett Johansson, who over the past year and a half or so has really found a range she seemed to be grasping for the previous decade. The four-film punch of Don Jon, Her, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Under the Skin has demonstrated her abilities not only as an actress but as someone who can genuinely hold the screen, and her transformation here from terrified victim to empowered ass-kicker to a super-being losing her humanity is remarkably effective considering how little time she has and how little meat in the script there is with which to work.

Not be unduly harsh on the film, because it is reasonably entertaining for it’s very, very brisk 89 minutes. Besson is back to his hammy ways of gauche meta-gags (the early scenes of Lucy being lured into the drug deal feature cuts to a mouse walking towards a trap and a cheetah chasing down antelope – for subtlety has never been his forte) and fast-moving close-ups. It’s got a somewhat chintzy digital video aesthetic that works for it’s rather half-assed nature, though the effects during the extended “trip through time and the beginning of the universe” are too rough and fast to register as anything other than hokey. The ambition should be applauded, however, even if it doesn’t quite work. The notion of tackling the nature of humanity and the universe in a B movie about Korean gangsters isn’t a bad one, but Besson is not the person to make it happen. For all the dizzying, anti-dystopia wonder of the his vision of the future in The Fifth Element and the solid Bruce Willis action scenes that enliven it, the ending with the ball of Evil and the, well, fifth element and “love” is truly terrible and really, really stupid. The lasting popularity of that film comes from the former aspects and not the latter, though someone might want to tell Besson. There’s a good idea thrown in at the end of Lucy about time being the unifying aspect, but with everything going on, 89 minutes is only enough time to hint towards something else. Everything else is a bit of a rush, and that happens to be its (almost) saving grace.

-M

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