More full-tilt-boogie Euro-schlock grindhouse existentialism from Luc Besson, featuring a droning, brain-powered superhero that Morgan Freeman tries his darnedest to explain
Why are the latest movies about super-intelligence so ultra-dopey? Audiences this year have already been subjected to “Transcendence,” in which Johnny Depp basically eats the internet, and now we've got “Lucy,” starring Scarlett Johansson as an unwitting mule whose ingestion of mass quantities of a new club drug pushes her past the limit of the usual 10% of brain power that humans supposedly use.
“Lucy” doesn't make a lick more sense than “Transcendence” did — even though both feature Morgan Freeman working overtime to talk us through the proceedings — but at least “Lucy” has the good fortune to be written and directed by Luc Besson, which means that while the results may be cuckoo-bananas, they're never boring.
Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is a freewheeling expat American in Taiwan, blowing off her studies for nightclub carousing, until the day her boyfriend handcuffs a briefcase to her arm and sends her to see fearsome mobster Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi, star of the original “Oldboy”). In a hilariously tense sequence (involving barked orders that have to be translated by a voice on the speaker-phone), Lucy discovers that the case is full of blue drug crystals (not unlike the Heisenberg mix on “Breaking Bad”).
Not long after, she wakes up with a bandage around her midriff and learns that a bag of the stuff has been hidden in her lower intestine. Before she can reach her destination, a flunky of Jang's kicks her in the gut, releasing the blue stuff into her system.
Mind you, this isn't crystal or ecstasy we're talking here; it's a synthesized version of a hormone released by pregnant women to make their babies develop, but in Lucy it causes a cellular reaction that gives her powers both mental and physical. (When the bag-rupture first happens, she goes full Fred Astaire in “Royal Wedding,” rolling up the walls and across the ceiling.)
Besson then throws various ticking clocks at us: Lucy has to capture the drugs from the other three mules, with the help of a French narcotics officer named, seriously, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked); Lucy has to hook up with legendary brain-guy scientist Professor Norman (Freeman) before her physical form shuts down entirely; and of course, Mr. Jang is in hot pursuit, although he and his thugs become less and less interesting as the story goes along.
We're dealing with a lead character, after all, who slips the shackles of time and space to perceive everything that has ever been. Once your heroine has become one with the universe, it's hard to get worked up over a dude with a gun, even if it's Oldboy.
Freeman, as is his wont, does a lot of explaining; he's not a character so much as the narrator of the audiobook of your stereo instructions, telling an audience (and, subsequently, us) how the brain works, what it does and doesn't do, and why dolphins have amazing abilities based on their usage of 20% of their brains.
As for what's going on in Luc Besson‘s brain, it's anyone's guess. He makes movies crammed with ridiculous situations, absurd action, and dialogue that frequently sounds like it was written in English, translated to his native French, and then translated back into English. Besson's movies are never dull, though, and that alone makes his loony flights of fancy and pretentious stabs at deeper meaning between the shoot-outs tolerable.
Still, if you're expecting Black Widow-style fight choreography for Johansson, think again: After a few early gun battles and mano-à-mano moments, she pretty much Obi-Wans her enemies into submission. Add her increasingly droning speech as her brainpower increases, and the performance becomes more and more puzzling, stripping away everything that makes her such a magnetic screen presence. If you want to see an otherworldly Johansson struggling with her bizarre powers, you're better off renting “Under the Skin.”
(To be fair, this will probably be the only movie where you'll ever see the actress stare glassily as she rapid-fire types up a storm on two side-by-side laptops.)
“Lucy” is a confounding experience, but at a brisk 85 or so minutes, it manages not to outstay its welcome. Those not enamored of Besson's particular brand of Euro-schlock grindhouse existentialism, however, may find their brains more stimulated elsewhere.