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From La Femme Nikita and The Professional to The Fifth Element, writer/director Luc Besson has created some of the toughest, most memorable female action heroes in cinematic history. Now, Besson directs Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, an action-thriller that tracks a woman accidentally caught in a dark deal who turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic. Lucy also stars Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman.
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The story revolves around Lucy, a ditzy 20-something blond party girl living the high life in Taipei, played by Scarlett Johansson. She becomes an accidental drug mule for some really scary bad guys who load up her abdomen with a new, super-duper synthetic party drug she must transport out of the country. Thanks to more really scary post-surgery bad guys, the drug starts leaking into Lucy’s gut, launching a chain of biochemical events that gradually turn on Lucy’s brain capacity to the 100% mark over the course of the film. Morgan Freeman plays the eminent brain researcher/Greek Chorus who helps Lucy, explains all the high-tech stuff to the rest of us, and dodges bullets when Lucy supernaturally conquers the bad guys who come to get their drug back. News Flash: The bad guys can’t touch her. At all.
The film has several strong points. Besson is a great proficient in high visual style as seen in his earlier films “The 5th Element” and “la Femme Nikita”. The look of the film is beautiful, and it’s all very well paced. Besson and his writers knew enough to not let either the action scenes or the more serious stuff fall into cliché. Animation wonderfully evokes, among other things, the life processes in our cells, passing through black holes, and also allows us to meet the original 3.2 million year old “Lucy”, the first near-modern primate ever discovered in the fossil record.
Viewers are naturally much more interested in the modern Lucy, and the film does not disappoint on that score. Scarlett Johansson does a superb job of being lofty, otherworldly, poignant, and a bombshell in a little black Chanel dress and 6-inch Christian Louboutin heels. The French filmmakers thought, somehow, that if you’re going to evolve and ascend, you should dress well enough to get through the metaphysical door. In the hands of a lesser actress, this would come off as either really campy or patronizing. Gifted actress that she is, Johansson brings a solemn nobility and innocent fascination to her character that is impossible to laugh at. She manages to maintain her dignity while fighting bad guys with really big guns, and driving insanely against one-way traffic in Paris, all the while obviously preoccupied with much larger, more interesting things than what those silly people are doing around her. Morgan Freeman is an excellent foil, bringing warmth and credibility to a part that amounts to reading a neurology textbook out loud. He carries it all off with complete artistic conviction.
This reviewer is most grateful that, despite the summer action movie packaging, the “message” is surprisingly high-toned. The small details and moments in the film show this to best advantage. As her plane lands in Paris, Lucy raises a glass of very good champagne to thin air and toasts,”To Knowledge!” It’s a small but telling moment. This is how Lucy will proceed with her evolution. The old adage remains true for many people that ultimate power corrupts absolutely. Just not here, and not with Lucy. She’s going to arrive at enlightenment in the best way possible. Many plot points in the movie support this upward path.
A few things tend to water down the message, however. First, the film is way too short at 1 hour 28 minutes. The most interesting points of the philosophical discussion get glossed over, or left hanging. For example, in the middle of the death-dealing demolition derby car chase in Paris, Lucy turns to her anxious policeman sidekick and reassures him with “We never really die”, while avoiding a lethal crash is if by mere chance. Now, it would have been quite interesting if Lucy could have discussed the after-life a bit more, since it seems like she actually knows something about it. Besson must have decided most unfortunately that the car chase had to come first. Interesting and even mind-blowing points are maddeningly rushed over in this way.
Also, much of the 1st act exposition is handled like a comic or graphic novel, and so the 1st act plot is overly compressed. Thus, much of the character development ends up a little shallow. It would have helped, for one thing, to see Lucy as she had been in a bit more detail before undergoing her drug-induced brain explosion. As it is, it’s hard to tell if she changes much, or not at all. 10 or 20 more screen minutes would have solved both these problems easily and not burdened the film at all.
But having said that, the film succeeds in posing a lot of mind-blowing questions in an arresting way. Is this what enlightenment really is? Is this where evolution is actually taking us? All those big questions and high-toned ethics, plus a bunch of guns and a little black dress, tied up in a summer action flick. Who knew?
ScarJo in an action flick. How could I resist. Oh sure, she's been Black Widow in black leather in "The Avengers" but so far, a secondary character. Here, Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a sometime college party girl living in Taiwan. She's duped into taking a briefcase to a man in a downtown skyscraper. She's quickly grabbed by some large Chinese goons and taken to the main man, Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). She doesn't know what's in the case but is ordered at gunpoint to open it. The bad guys, expecting a possible bomb, hide behind walls and shields. It doesn't explode.
It contains 4 packs of a blue powder substance. I'll call it WD-40 because I can't remember what its name is but it is a high powered growth substance found in fetuses. Mr. Jang and his evil-doers have found a way to create a synthetic form which provides a new high for druggies. He plans to introduce it to Europe and America using 4 mules to carry the baggies sewn into their stomachs, specifically the intestine.
About this time I'm thinking this is a movie that might have starred Milla Jovovich. But watching Ms. Johansson in this early scene suggested otherwise. She's very convincing simulating the terror one must feel in a situation like this. An American girl in a foreign country, grabbed in a public area, whisked before a terrorist drug thug in the midst of other casualties in nearby rooms. It is an unsettling scene and some great acting.
Lucy and the other 3 are given passports and plane tickets. While waiting for her flight, Lucy is kept in a dingy room with two guards who are looking for a bit of sex before putting her on the plane. When Lucy resists, one of the guards beats her senseless which causes the WD-40 to leak. This in turn causes a wiring malfunction inside Lucy's body. Rather than kill her, it gives her a hypo-jolt of stimulus and increased brain function.
After disposing of a room full of guards, she returns to her apartment and makes a call to her mother. This is mostly a one-sided conversation where Lucy tells her mother that she loves her. She remembers her mother's kisses and affection over the years, even going back to her infant days of nursing. She does this in great detail in a full screen close-up of Johansson's face. Another acting lesson.
A backdrop to this story is that Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), a noted neuroscientist has been studying the use of the brain and how humans don't tap into much more than 10% with 20% a theoretical max. Now frankly, as you might have guessed by now, I'm no neurologist or scientist of any kind, but I'm buying all of this because Morgan Freeman is saying it. I'm going with it. And if you want to enjoy the movie, so should you. A brief aside please. Lucy is not only our heroine's name but the name given a skeleton found years ago who is believed to be the earliest example of a bridge between ape and human. We see several flashes of this humanoid during the film.
Speaking of flashes. Whenever Lucy gets a new jolt of brainpower the screen fills with some eye-popping visuals. I saw the film straight and on a huge screen with the newish Dolby Atmos sound, it was pretty thrilling. We see Johansson take her character slowly from a frightened young woman to an almost robotic machine with each gush of WD-40 entering her system. I will caution viewers expecting non-stop action sequences of Lucy kicking butt. They may be disappointed. She does plenty, but with each jolt of brainpower she's more into neutralizing her foes rather than killing them. But there is an inventive race against time throughout the Paris streets with the enhanced Lucy at the car's controls.
Director and writer Luc Besson gets back in the game with this entertaining film even with its slightly ridiculous premise.