Luc Besson’s career as a director, writer and producer has been packed with films that feature beautiful female leads and, nine times out of ten, the characters they play have a propensity for kicking arse (or ‘ass’ as I believe it is widely-known elsewhere). Since Anne Parillaud and Nikita at the turn of the 1990s the director has also been paired with Milla Jovovich (twice), Rie Rasmussen, Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz and Zoe Saldana, among others. The latest entry in Besson’s growing list of femme fatales is Scarlett Johansson, who plays the titular character in Lucy, an energetic sci-fi film about the untapped power of the human brain.
Just under 90 minutes long, Lucy is Besson running at around 90% frivolity and silliness (The Fifth Element, by way of comparison, is Besson at 150%), and your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on your tolerance for throwaway, mindless action sequences or the kind of ultra-camp villainy that was all the rage in the 1980s. There’s certainly a market for the Frenchman’s lurid brand of brightly-coloured sense-whammery – $400 million profit and counting, it says here – and I found this to be much more fun than the similarly-themed Limitless, although Johansson isn’t exactly stretched and at times it resembles a showreel for some of the more memorable special effects ideas that have appeared elsewhere during the past 15 years.
Lucy is an American student in Taiwan. We don’t find out much else about her life or personality – Besson has rarely embraced characterisation, back story or character development and his disdain for such passé ideas has increased as the years have trundled by – except for the fact that she has a mother, a flatmate back in Paris and a dodgy drug-dealing boyfriend called Richard (Pilou Asbaek). When Richard asks Lucy to deliver a suitcase containing a valuable synthetic narcotic called CPH4 to a Korean mob boss named Jang (Choi Min-sik) she is kidnapped and forced to act as a drugs mule, with a bag of the mind-blowing substance forcibly sewn into her abdomen. After one of Jang’s henchmen – this gangster has an endless supply of black-suited charges in his employment – beats her up, the bag splits inside Lucy’s body and the drug floods into her system (with psychedelic-looking effects copped from Fight Club’s synapse-crackling title sequence).
Consuming the drug in such a quantity enables Lucy to access previously untapped mental abilities. As this is a Luc Besson film the character doesn’t use this new-found super intelligence to rid the world of its various problems and instead Lucy focuses on exacting revenge for her kidnapping by dishing out a punishing hour’s worth of bottom-whoopery. In short she becomes super-human, with title cards telling us exactly how much of her brain’s capacity she has accessed: at 20% she is hyper-intelligent and supremely alert, with incredible strength and speed, and as this figure increases she develops further abilities – time manipulation, telepathy, telekinesis, ability to transform appearance on a whim, total control of feelings and nerves, and so on. She locates from Kang the whereabouts of three other drug mules carrying similar packages, but infuriatingly refuses to kill her enemy when she has the chance, despite happily offing dozens of his underlings.
As Lucy’s capacity for doing quite incredible things develops rapidly the action shifts to Paris, where she is joined by Morgan Freeman’s scientist-by-numbers Professor Norman and Amr Waked’s Pierre, who fulfils the duel functions of ‘cop’ and ‘utterly spurious love interest’. While in the City of Lights she must gather all of the remaining CPH4 before (a) Kang and his small nation of henchmen can get hold of it and (b) Besson flips out entirely on a kind of wacky psychedelic plot wave. She manages to do this, although (b) still happens.
Besson is very much in magpie mode here. As well as the thematic similarities with Limitless and Akira there’s Matrix-style bullet-time aplenty as Lucy’s mental powers increase and some gravity-defying scraps that bring Christopher Nolan’s Inception to mind, but this film is rarely as inventive as any of those and it’s disappointing that with an infinite number of possibilities available the director falls back on the old tried-and-tested staples of car chases and Uzi-heavy goodies vs baddies shootouts. Lucy is not completely without its very own ‘wow’ moments though, which is as it should be: Industrial Light & Magic worked on over 1,000 effects shots, and very few of these stay on the screen for long. One of the best scenes sees Johansson’s character literally coming apart at the seams on an aeroplane as her own cells attempt to escape her body, and her final metamorphosis into a kind of plastic-y blackness is just as striking. (It also makes for a nice link to her more notable sci-fi work this year in Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin – even down to the minimal white background.)
It’s pointless to bemoan the lack of character development or even memorable dialogue in a Besson movie, as by now you know what you’re likely to get; he may have hated the association with the ‘Cinéma du look’ movement (Nikita, Subway and Le Grand Bleu being three key works) but he has always favoured style over substance and despite the occasional left-turn (2011’s Aung San Suu Kyi biography The Lady, for example) there has been an even greater emphasis placed on frothy freneticism recently, with the Taken, Transporter and Taxi series dominating the past 15 years of his career, albeit as a writer and producer.
Like those films Lucy does feel a little too action-heavy; all trousers and no mouth, as it were. I’m not sure what to make of a film that puts forward the suggestion that we have it within ourselves to become ‘gods’ without effectively questioning what that would entail for the human race or our planet; as Lucy grows ever-grander in scale Besson keeps half of his focus on the relatively unimportant matter of a Parisian gunfight, which seems like a waste of valuable time to me. The film’s token scientist just looks puzzled when Lucy hits 100%, as well he should, but even Besson doesn’t seem to know what to do with his heroine at this point and just tries to dazzle his way out of it with fancy time travel efffects and pretty pictures of the universe. Why bother with examining the idea at hand in any great detail when you have bullet-time and the good people of ILM at the end of the phone line, eh? Instead of any serious philosophising there’s just a little wink-wink scene that’s tacked on to the overblown finale. It’s flaky, to say the least.
Moaning aside, although some of the effects are facsimile versions of shots that you have seen before elsewhere, there’s something undeniably enjoyable at times about the director’s carefree breeziness and his predilection for stylish action set pieces. The Onion‘s Tobias Scott once pointed out that Besson’s slick Hollywood-style films were ‘so interchangeable—drugs, sleaze, chuckling supervillainy, and Hong Kong-style effects—that each new project probably starts with white-out on the title page’ and Lucy does nothing to suggest that the criticism is false. At times you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve overdosed on M&Ms while watching it, but ultimately Lucy is fun to watch, which is itself mind-boggling when you actually start to analyse it: Choi Min-sik’s character, for example, could have been lifted straight from a mid-80s Schwarzenegger movie or an early-90s Seagal affair, while some of the fight scene moves hark back to early 90s Chow Yun Fat movies. And he was only using 10% of his brain.
Ah whatever. It’s over-the-top, brightly-lit nonsense, but enjoyable over-the-top brightly-lit nonsense all the same.
Directed by: Luc Besson
Written by: Luc Besson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-sik
Running Time: 89 minutes