After seeing the wretched action/"comedy" The Family last year, I was convinced that French filmmaker Luc Besson had completely lost it. I could not believe that the same man who made so many legitimately great '90s action films could turn in a film so disastrous on every conceivable level. It made me think that maybe the French critics were right about the guy, that he was a Hollywood-wannabe hack whose luck had run out. Well, after seeing his latest film, Lucy, my opinion of Besson's recent work hasn't budged much, but I do think I know how to get him to make a watchable movie again: feed him a truly heroic quantity of psychedelic drugs. Lucy is an action film written and directed by somebody who was tripping balls at every step of the production, and while I still can't tell if it was a good movie, I didn't leave the theater wanting to strangle Besson like I did after his last film.
That metaphor is appropriate given the plot of this film, which concerns the titular Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) being forced to work as a drug mule while in Taiwan, carrying a kilo of a killer new synthetic drug inside her body on a flight to Europe. One of her captors tries to rape her, and beats the crap out of her when she rejects his advances, causing the bag to rupture and spill what should be a beyond-lethal dose into her system. Only instead of killing her, the drug activates the unused 90% of her brain (...let's not get me started on that bit of folk science, shall we?), which effectively gives her superpowers -- telekinesis, telepathy, heightened intelligence and senses, and ultra-badass fighting and driving skills. After researching her new powers, Lucy seeks out Dr. Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman), a scientist who may be able to help her figure out what the hell is happening to her, though as her power grows, it's Norman who's quite clearly outmatched intellectually, and so seeks to study Lucy for the benefit of humankind. All the while, Lucy is being chased by Chinese gangsters who want their drugs back, not realizing quite what they're dealing with.
And then this movie does what Lucy herself did in the opening scenes, and takes all the drugs before indulging in some 2001: A Space Odyssey shit. I'm still not quite certain what the hell went down in the finale. I'll refrain from trying to describe it not because I don't like to give spoilers on movies I enjoyed (and I did enjoy this), but because if I told you, you probably would not believe a word of it. This movie reaches big, aiming to be a lot more than a simple action-fest of the sort we've all seen before, trying to be philosophical and deep on top of it. Does it work? Well, something tells me that Besson may have been a bit out of his depth here given this film's laughable portrayal of neuroscience and quantum physics, but I certainly appreciated the film's resolute, unapologetic pro-science and pro-knowledge message. Moreover, the fact that the film actually tried (even if only with mixed success) to be about something other than mindless violence like so many other summer blockbusters with four times the budget made it a breath of fresh air in a summer movie season that, so far, has been dead in terms of truly memorable content. (Wake me when Guardians of the Galaxy comes out next weekend...)
When it comes to the action itself, once more Besson has made a spectacular improvement since The Family, at times reminding me of the films that made him great back in the '90s. We get hyperactive shootouts and car chases punctuated by cutaways to scenes of nature that seem appropriate to the circumstances, all with a lot of trippy visuals stringing them together even when the guns aren't going off. One thing that he's always had going for him is his sense of cinematic style, and here he made a film unlike any I've seen this year. Moreover, he gives Scarlett Johansson a chance to once again prove that she's an excellent actor and far more than just a hottie (though she certainly didn't dress down for this film). Whether she was playing scared and weak in the first twenty minutes, cool and detached once she becomes a techno-goddess, or a badass action heroine in the film's many action scenes (which felt like a test run for the Black Widow movie that really can't come sooner), she was great. Between action films like this and Captain America, quirky romantic comedies like Don Jon, Her, and Lost in Translation, and indie flicks like Ghost World, Johansson has shown herself to be one of the most versatile actors of her generation, and this film gives her a stage to show off many of her talents. Besson and Johansson made for a great team, up there with his work with a young Natalie Portman in Leon and Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita. Morgan Freeman was also a welcome presence, even if he's just playing another version of the "cool old guy" that's become his stock in trade in the last ten years.
Score: 3 out of 5
I probably couldn't tell you what the hell I just watched, and to be honest I don't even know if this movie is actually good or not given the mincemeat it makes of science and the fact that I'm still baffled by just what the hell happened in the last twenty minutes. I can say, however, that Luc Besson has redeemed himself after The Family, making a psychedelic action movie that I enjoyed even without chemical assistance (though this film is probably gonna be huge on the stoner/LSD circuit).