Action Film Review

Unlocking the Full Potential of a Film Review: Lucy

July 25, 2014Ben MK

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Besson on the brain...

The last time Luc Besson named one of his movies after its central protagonist, that character's name was Léon, and he was a professional hitman. Simply retitled The Professional for North American audiences, Besson's 1994 film — revolving around a one-man killing machine who goes up against a corrupt DEA agent and his cronies to protect the life of a young girl — was an action masterpiece. And now, it appears that Besson has once again returned to familiar action territory with Lucy, whose titular heroine is also a formidable force of one. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.


In the film, Scarlett Johansson is Lucy. We never learn her last name, and we barely learn anything else about her other than that she's a twenty-something-year-old American student living in Taipei, has questionable taste in men and comes from a loving home. The rest is immaterial, because Lucy is more of a proxy than a character — a representation of an idea. Before we meet her, however, Besson reminds us that our earliest human ancestor also goes by the name Lucy, establishing an allegory that the writer/director reiterates throughout the movie — for Johansson's Lucy is about to become the first of her kind as well.

After being duped by her sleazy boyfriend into delivering a briefcase full of a new designer drug — a crystalline blue compound called CPH4 — to a vicious underworld crime boss named Mr. Jang (Oldboy's Choi Min-sik), Lucy finds herself one of four unwitting drug mules forced to smuggle the valuable product out of the country. Jang is the kind of ruthless gangster who would brutally kill a man and then nonchalantly wash the blood off his hands with Evian water, so naturally he has no qualms about slicing Lucy open and surgically implanting a pouch of CPH4 into her lower abdominal cavity. But before she's able to leave the country, she's roughed up by some seedy characters, at which point the pouch inside her ruptures, releasing a massive dose of CPH4 into her system.

From there, the film quickly veers into some surprisingly heady (and head-trippy) territory. The drug — a synthetic version of a naturally-occurring chemical that aids the development of human fetuses, which one character refers to as "an atomic bomb for babies" — is so potent that its mere absorption into her body sends Lucy into gravity-defying spasms, causing her to writhe uncontrollably on the floor, the wall, and even the ceiling (Exorcist-style), before passing out. Instead of overdosing, she awakens transformed, gifted with access to the previously inaccessible neural pathways in her brain. This also translates into some uncanny new abilities, including superhuman reflexes and telekinetic powers.

As her brain function steadily climbs to 100% — enabling her to manipulate radio waves, visualize the life force flowing through living organisms, and even view the entire cosmic history of the atoms around her — she reaches out to an eminent brain researcher, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman), to help her comprehend what she's becoming. Although you really have to wonder: with her rapidly-developing intellect, is this not something she could easily figure out on her own? In any case, she soon realizes that without more of the drug, she'll die, prompting her to also enlist the help of Parisian police Captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), to track down the other three mules. All the while, Jang and his army of gangsters are in feverish pursuit, eager to retrieve their valuable product.

Had Besson made Lucy in the mid-to-late 90's, then surely Milla Jovovich, Besson's secret weapon for The Fifth Element, would have been tapped to fill the lead role. As it stands, Johansson is a worthy successor to Jovovich, and Lucy is a worthy modern update to Jovovich's Leeloo character from that film: a no-nonsense, super-powered femme fatale who doesn't need someone like Bruce Willis to protect her, because she's perfectly capable of handling her enemies on her own. And handle them she does: at first, Lucy subdues her aggressors with physical force and lightning-fast reflexes, but as she unlocks a greater and greater percentage of her gray matter, she becomes adept at neutralizing her opponents with a mere glance or a wave of the hand, all without so much as breaking a sweat.

Of course, this all but nullifies the hopes of anyone expecting to see Johansson slip into full-on Black Widow mode to vanquish the bad guys. Lucy has been billed as a sci-fi/action extravaganza, but while there are spurts of madcap action (including a giddy Transporter-esque vehicular sequence and a frenetic gun battle which culminates in a gangster using — what else — a rocket launcher to obliterate a locked door), Besson is primarily concerned with unlocking the potential of the story's far-out sci-fi premise, full of musings on metaphysics and human existence. In other words, the movie's DNA is more The Fifth Element than it is La Femme Nikita.

Despite the audaciousness of Besson's grand design, it all hinges on Johansson's performance as the intellectually-enhanced title character. Much like her portrayal of the slinky alien visitor in Under the Skin, the actress invokes an otherwordly quality for the role, coming across as one part alien, one part robot, as underscored by her deadpan delivery and Lucy's zen-like calmness in the face of adversity. But to Johansson's credit, she always keeps Lucy's humanity floating just beneath the surface, and it shines through on occasion, as in a tender scene where Lucy phones her mother as if to speak with her for the very last time. Likewise, when Del Rio asks her why she needs him at all, since she's more than able to fend for herself, Lucy replies with poetic soulfulness, "As a reminder."

And that's essentially what Lucy is: a reminder of Besson's potential as a filmmaker. After a string of lackluster projects, many moviegoers might already be content with writing him off as having scraped the bottom of his creative barrel, but this movie proves otherwise. It's imaginative and bold, and even though its final act may catch viewers off-guard with its sheer amount of metaphysical insanity, it's a testament to Besson's creative prowess that he's even able to pull it off at all.

The Bottom Line Although you wouldn't know it by looking at it, Lucy is one of the year's most polarizing films, sure to leave some moviegoers scratching their heads and others grinning from ear to ear. It's a far cry from your prototypical action movie, nor is it your standard sci-fi fare. It is, however, enthralling through and through. And it's proof that Luc Besson still knows how to captivate an audience.  Ben Mk

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