Movie review: “Lucy” (2014)

lucy

“One neuron, you’re alive. Two neurons, you’re moving. And with movement, interesting things begin to happen…”

Lucy is Scarlett Johansson’s show from start to finish, but director Luc Besson was still wise to secure the services of Hollywood’s go-to provider of gravitas, Morgan Freeman, to function as what may be the first fully expository main character in action film history. Expository characters in action films are, of course, a dime a dozen. Every other James Bond movie, for example, produces, upon the superspy’s arrival in an exotic, forbidding new locale, some goofy local agent whose entire purpose is to appear from out of a nearby bush just long enough to bring Bond up to speed on the villain’s progress before getting himself killed. Freeman’s second-billed scientist sets the new standard, spending the first third of Lucy lecturing a hall of attentive European extras on the untapped but tantalizing potential of the human mind, the second third bewildered after he is contacted by a young woman whose misadventures with a Taiwanese designer drug (intended to – stay with me – synthesize and concentrate the miraculous natural agent that kick starts fetuses in utero) have unlocked her mind in unheard of and highly dangerous ways, and the final third as a helpless bystander in a stylized, slow-motion shootout between the drug syndicate, seeking to recover its product in full kamikaze mode, and a conspicuously efficient but essentially faceless battalion of French police.

These two opposing forces seek, by turns, to kill or protect the titular Lucy, although an interesting extra psychological wrinkle (one of the film’s approximately three) is introduced to the climactic firefight with each side’s full knowledge, won through hard experience, of the futility of its mission. Lucy is by this point using a frightening and unprecedented 100% of her brain, is as much a physical computer as a metaphorical one, and is therefore well beyond their capacity to injure, impede or even inconvenience. Every step along her road to unfettered mental access is unprecedented, as the film is at pains to remind us, but her journey begins with a young couple arguing outside a high rise hotel. She is an American rooming with a friend in Taiwan, and he is her shady new boyfriend, who as his first act of chivalry pressures Lucy into delivering a mysterious briefcase to an important hotel guest by handcuffing it to her wrist. Johansson has only a few minutes to establish Lucy as a human being the least bit worth caring about, her initial bemusement giving way to escalating alarm, as the VIP is identified as the requisite unreasonable and scary Asian mob boss, and then outright panic, as she is led into a penthouse containing multiple dead bodies and is forced at gunpoint to open the briefcase as the boss and his minions wait from a safe distance, brandishing shields one normally sees used by riot police or explosives experts. These early scenes at least motion in the direction of dramatic resonance despite their underlying absurdity, and Johansson turns in a heroic performance that is way better than the material deserves, or, frankly, can support.

Lucy, through a series of complications so coincidental and clockwork that they really should be seen to be believed, gets exposed to massive quantities of a designer drug that both unlocks her brain’s potential and immediately begins tapping it with extreme vigor. Soon enough she is blinking her way through a rapid succession of different colored irises, and is surfing the internet and hacking into network servers with lightning agility using two separate laptops simultaneously. As her mental acuity increases, the humanity Johansson so ably brought to the early going gets squeezed out of Lucy in favor of increased processing capacity and what starts as a standard revenge plot, wanders aimlessly for a little while, and then detours into a final bit of high-minded gibberish about the biological need to pass on knowledge to others. To his credit, at no point does director/screenwriter Besson – who as the force behind The Fifth Element and the Taken and Transporter series, to name but a few, has years of experience with ludicrous, high concept potboilers – paint Lucy’s new abilities as much of a gift, and, indeed, even spends a few fleeting moments lamenting her steadily degrading humanity. Johansson locks in her performance, regarding the bullets flying past her placid head quizzically, and her pursuers and protectors alike with a mixture of detachment, annoyance and curiosity. She does whatever the role asks of her, but as the film starts running low on inspiration, it’s left to this presumably tragic figure to generate sympathy as well as awe. The latter is in decent enough supply; the former is lacking.

During its first half, as our newly enhanced heroine is discovering the extent of her upgrades and Freeman unfurls his luxurious baritone in juxtaposition with footage of cheetahs stalking antelopes on the African plains, Lucy is solid entertainment. Who knew that utilizing more than 10% of one’s brain could be the key to unlocking the secrets of at will body manipulation, effortless telekinesis, or low grade mind control? We Americans are a society of underachievers comparatively. One moment, Lucy is executing an entire room of hitmen within a scant second’s worth of firing time, and in the next she has hijacked every screen-containing device (smartphone, laptop, TV) in Freeman’s hotel room by way of dramatic, conclusive introduction/demonstration of her abilities. Lucy, having already foiled the drug ring singlehandedly, travels to Europe to rendezvous with Freeman’s scientist for reasons that, true to established form, are thoroughly explained yet make little sense, and the mob boss doggedly pursues her, his rapidly dwindling supply of disposable minions in tow. There are magnificent individual moments, such as a police chase that openly flaunts several laws of motion as it progresses through the streets of Paris, and a weirdly thrilling interlude where Lucy sits in bustling, modern day Times Square, then with a wave of her arm akin to hitting a high speed rewind button, travels back to the same location at the turn of the 20th century, and then, with another, back to the prehistoric swampland on which it was originally built. Besson’s direction is clean, kinetic, and bracing, balletic in a generic John Woo sort of way without being particularly moving, though does it ever have aspirations. He does his best to keep the visual surprises coming, right up to the point where he finally runs out of ideas.

Amidst the unfolding chaos, Freeman’s character has exactly three purposes, each of which maps neatly to one of the movie’s aforementioned thirds: 1) to stand by in amazement and/or befuddlement and smile in wonder and/or slowly shake his head, 2) to lend some semblance of stakes to the film’s arbitrary final moments (one pictures the perfect audience member yelling, “Please don’t kill Morgan Freeman!”), and 3) to lull the viewer into accepting that his dissertation on brain use, the background on which the film so precariously balances, has any merit whatsoever. As does pretty much everything else, scientific pseudo-babble just sounds better coming from Morgan Freeman, more solid, more important somehow, more plausible. Freeman has by now narrated numerous films, served as the moral compass in countless others, and credibly played both the President of the United States and God, but even he isn’t a miracle worker. The film really shouldn’t be expending such effort to involve us in its story anyway. Lucy is an eye-popping, generally entertaining trifle, a wind-up toy ponderously introduced then turned loose, but no more. As science fiction, it’s fairly laughable, but as pure action, it is lean and inventive, occasionally quite fun, and feels shot out of a cannon. Its most contemplative moments come in the form of extended POV shots taken from the inside of a burlap bag, with Johansson’s ragged breathing the only sound. Besson may have been trying to fit a pronounced empowerment angle into how Lucy’s mission plays out, though he loses it (and her) along the way. While it’s admittedly pretty awesome to watch Lucy bend her adversaries and environment to her will, she and the film are just on a prohibitively tight schedule. There’s precious little time for Besson to concern himself with characterization, although Johansson is an invaluable asset to the cause of temporarily fooling us. Besson even brought Morgan Freeman in to bat cleanup. His presence, as always, is welcome, though his services here are largely unnecessary.

“Lucy” (2014) 2.5/4 stars

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