Luc Besson should have been born in Hong Kong. Although he’s from France, he is the spiritual child of John Woo and delivers the high-body-count cinema that began in that city. His first major hit as a writer and director was La Femme Nikita, which spawned an American remake (Point of No Return) and two TV series. From there he wrote, directed and/or produced Leon: The Professional (which was 13-year-old Natalie Portman’s feature film debut), The Fifth Element, The Transporter, and Taken, among others. Now Besson has written and directed Lucy
“Life was given to us a billion years ago,” Scarlett Johansson says in a voice-over of the CGI image of Australopithecus afarensis drinking water from a prehistoric pool. “What have we done with it?” The image jumps to the modern world with skyscrapers, traffic jams and crowds. Especially early on in the film, Besson throws in nature footage to equate the actions of the characters with that of wild animals. It makes you feel like you’re constantly flipping between HBO and an Animal Planet documentary. Having Morgan Freeman as a main character adds to the documentary feel in light of the voice-over narration he’s done on films like March of the Penguins. Strangely enough, the imagery works well in the context of the story.
Lucy (Johansson) is a student in Taiwan who’s been more focused on partying than studying. Her current week-long boyfriend tries to talk her into delivering a briefcase for him to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). She refuses politely, but then the boyfriend handcuffs the case to her wrist and tells her Jang is the only one who can take it off. The boyfriend is dispatched of by Jang’s men and Lucy is dragged up to his office. Inside the case are four packets of a blue crystalline substance. Lucy is knocked out, and when she awakens she finds they’ve surgically placed one of the packages in her stomach cavity. She and three other drug mules are given passports and plane tickets and are sent to deliver the drugs to Jang’s men in Europe.
Lucy is taken to a holding cell to await her flight. Some of Jang’s men beat her and threaten much worse. The beating causes the packet to rupture, spilling a huge dose of the drug into her body. Lucy finds the drug has jumpstarted her mental capacity so that it’s growing at an exponential rate. With her new intelligence Lucy escapes the cell and gets to a hospital to have the package removed. In doing so, she leaves a trail of bodies in her wake. She tracks down Professor Samuel Norman (Freeman), an expert on brain function and evolution who is lecturing in Paris. (His lecture has been interspersed with Lucy’s actions in Taiwan as well as the nature video footage.) She arranges to meet him, and works with a French Surete captain, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) to round up the other drug mules. But Jang follows her, and is determined to kill Lucy.
Besson keeps the sleek movie roaring along at a race-car pace through its 89 minute running time, gliding over erroneous technical details. For instance, a large part of the story revolves around the old saw that humans only use a small percentage of their brain, something that’s been disproved by MRI imaging. Besson admitted in an interview that he knew this was incorrect, but he kept it because it made such a great jumping-off point for the movie.
As she’s shown in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Scarlett Johansson can kick-ass with the best of them, like Angelina Jolie in Laura Croft: Tomb Raider or Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Actually, during the ten years it took Besson to get the film made, Jolie was cast as Lucy, but she had to drop out before Besson began filming. As important as the action, Johansson makes Lucy sympathetic from the beginning, She gets the audience rooting for the character, and that connection continues throughout the film. Freeman is given the unenviable role of explaining the pseudo-science of the film, but with his voice and gravitas he makes it compelling. Min-sik Choi is a veteran of Korean cinema, and was the title character in the original version of Old Boy. His embodiment of Jang blends both world-weariness with complete ruthlessness, and makes him a compelling villain for the piece.
The movie throws action, science fiction and nature documentary elements into a blender and purees them, and the smoothie that’s created somehow has a pleasant taste. Think of Lucy as a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with guns and car chases as a substitute for the space and the odyssey, and with 2001’s glacial pace turned up to eleven.