Luc Besson is still making movies like it’s the 90’s and he’s cool as fuck. That’s fine for him. The seemingly sustained confidence and gung-ho action euphoria of his cinematic output must be a beautiful, starry world to live in. A slick, seductive place where walking around a corner happens like someone’s sat on the fast-forward button because, hell, who even has time for walking around corners? It’s an attractive world of no consequences, where cars pirouette through market stalls and the sight of guns is so commonplace that it goes unquestioned in areas of communal safety, like, say, hospitals.
For those of us in the real world, however, this alternate reality has become a dubious, flimsy, dangerous place to visit of late. Besson’s kinetic style fires off like a lens flare; sometimes it’s pretty, occasionally it’s irksome, sometimes we just want to squint and withdraw. In short, and with as few poorly-conceived metaphors as possible, his name and brand have become unreliable. Quality isn’t always guaranteed.
So to his latest, Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson as a ditzy, down-on-her-luck gal who is exposed to a new drug which has the power to unlock a human being’s full potential. Remember that old line about how we use only 10% of our brain capacity? Well Lucy proposes what would happen if we could synthesise a substance to open up the other 90. Turns out there would be a lot of guns. And cars that go really fast.
Besson has Lucy (Johansson) duped into a deal that quickly turns south. She winds up as a mule, trafficking this volatile new substance in a plastic pouch inside her abdomen for sociopathic bad-dude Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik). When the bag ruptures, the chemicals swirl inside her body and her unexpected vault in evolution begins. Elsewhere, Morgan Freeman plays Professor Norman, for all intents and purposes acting simply as narrator until the film gets around to putting the two of them in the same room together.
But even then, this is Johansson’s show. Her star’s been back on the rise again of late, and this year especially has seen both commercial success (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and critical adoration (Under The Skin) slip under her belt. And while Lucy is likely to garner more dollars than praise, her performance here is undeniably superb. A consistent presence and talent in Hollywood, she occasionally shows us greatness. Lucy sees her draw from the same well that served her so startlingly in the aforementioned Under The Skin. As Lucy accelerates away from the rest of us, she becomes more and more alien. That poise and other-worldliness that Johansson brought forth for Jonathan Glazer’s film is revisited here.
If Under The Skin was too arty for you, then Lucy may be its ideal popcorn-chugging variant. Besson careers through this story at breakneck pace, shrugging off anything he deems unnecessary. Lucy herself is merely sketched in before the plot pulls the rug out from under her, while movie nitpickers are thrown handfuls of plot points to guess at as the mechanisms of acquiring guns and knives and money and transportation are set by the wayside in favour of relentlessly moving forward. All the while there’s Morgan Freeman to gently remind you that all of this is, supposedly, theoretically possible… if not exactly probable.
And it’s all really, really entertaining, before and beyond any other considerations. Freeman can spit X-Filesian exposition until the cows come home, but Besson’s movie is, at its heart, still as dumb as a box of hammers. As soon as Lucy’s capabilities start seriously outpacing his own, Besson gets into a lot of trouble. Some things here, quite frankly, don’t add up. And the incremental additional superpowers that Lucy acquires often seem arbitrary, if not downright convenient. Until the very end, there’s not much of a defined curve to her evolution.
But if you regress yourself to that 90’s state of mind, Lucy works really well for the majority of its run-time. Against all odds and expectations this little movie – which sounds like a collision of Limitless and Chronicle – is actually far better than it has any right to be. On the surface at least, this is a breezy, speedy, sexy little riot. Besson has a keen sense for visualising (and therefore contextualising) the extra senses that Lucy acquires, while a dynamic car chase through Paris allows him to flex his action muscles for those who might’ve thought he’d lost the touch. This movie casts a pretty decent spell for a pleasing percentage of its svelte 89 minutes.
But, when it comes to the end, things come a little unglued. Lucy thinks it’s smarter than it is, while still trying to satiate the action-hungry audience who’ve stuck with Besson through Ronin and Taken. Creating a seamless synergy of the two different sensibilities proves tricky. What does 100% brain capacity feel like? The end result steals liberally from Akira, while also touching on everything from The Matrix to The Tree Of Life and even Johansson’s other success story of the year, Her. When the film winks quickly out of existence and the credits start to roll, you’d be forgiven for sitting there and wondering what exactly Besson was proposing. It’s a little vague and wishy-washy. Likewise, action fans may come to feel that this hasn’t led to the explosive finale they were anticipating.
Nevertheless, in an age where summer movies are almost all franchises, sequels or lowest-common-denominator ‘comedies’, a fun, fast and (almost) original product like Lucy is a good thing. You can’t hope to take this film seriously, but as a slice of entertainment goes it happily ticks enough of the boxes, and, in Johansson’s performance, boasts a central turn that’s technically better than it needed to be. Upshot? Besson still has it, even if he doesn’t know what to do with it.