Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min Sik
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 25 Jul 2014; 2014)
Luc Besson has been impatient when it comes to shootouts ever since 1990’s La Femme Nikita. A typical scene that we’ve seen him repeat from that film to 1997’s The Fifth Element to his newest, Lucy, goes as follows: a lone armed hero or villain walks swiftly into a room filled with many other characters with guns. The lone gunperson lets off many, many rounds in the blink of an eye. Everybody else falls down dead.
That tendency for cleaving away narrative fat served Besson well back in the 1990s when every film firefight lasted ten minutes longer than necessary. His taste for efficient and insouciant high-octane storytelling translated over into the high-end grindhouse films from his EuropaCorp action-factory (the Taken and Transporter franchises in particular), whose jaunty black humor often made up for their many other deficiencies.
But Lucy, Besson’s first writing/directing credit on a major action film in a decade and a half, shows him having apparently grown impatient with nearly every convention of storytelling. We have barely met his Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) before she’s thrown into a bloody meat-grinder of a crime syndicate plot that results in her becoming a superhuman, god-like creature. All we know about Lucy is that she’s an American student in Taipei who likes to go clubbing. This lack of background drains the drama out of her transformation into near-omnipotence, no matter how nifty it is to watch her drop a roomful of gunmen to the ground with a flick of her finger (more on than in a bit).
Talked by a friend of hers into walking a locked briefcase into a luxury hotel just before he gets perforated by bullets, Lucy is whisked by a phalanx of gunmen into a suite where she meets Mr. Jang (Oldboy’s Choi Min Sik, whose brutal humor works quite effectively). A panicked Lucy discovers that she will be one of several mules who is going to have a packet of blue crystals sewn into their abdomens for transportation to Europe. Before Lucy gets to Paris, the packet ruptures.
The blue crystals turn out to be a synthetic version of a substance called CPH4 that (the film says) pregnant mothers transmit to fetuses in order to help them grow. Getting a big jolt of it blasts Lucy’s body and brain into post-human mode. Pretty soon she’s defying gravity, using X-ray vision, instantly accessing all downloadable human knowledge, and bending reality to her will like a more verbally dexterous version of The Matrix’s Neo mixed with Lisbeth Salander.
Along the way, Besson cuts to lectures of a cognitive science professor (wise, wise Morgan Freeman) who references the old (and already widely disproven) saw about humans only using ten percent of their brains. Besson also cuts to counters showing Lucy’s cortical capacity increasing, 30 percent, 40, and so on. As Lucy heads to Paris to meet with the good professor, with a wounded and highly ticked Mr. Jang close behind, the mystery of what will happen once and if Lucy reaches 100 percent (by revving her abilities so high, the CPH4 is essentially burning her body out at warp speed) is supposed to be driving the film.
If Besson had bothered creating an actual person out of Lucy, this might have happened. But by transforming her so quickly into an intellectual Terminator – Johansson’s flat affect and jerky facial movements model those of Community’s Abed, but without any of his underlying empathy – we lose any sense of what she has lost.
By the time all the elements converge in Paris for another lazily choreographed shootout (who knew it was so easy to get assault rifles and rocket launchers in France on a moment’s notice?), it all hardly seems to matter. Lucy’s attempt at a quasi-Kubrickian ascendency into another state of being is laughably signified with a lot of Hubble space photography, and confusing to boot. Exactly how accessing more of her brain allows Lucy to become superhuman is never explained, nor how such a god-like being is able to control everything but can’t figure out how to modulate her voice.
Rarely has a film about human intelligence been so resolutely lacking in that ingredient.