There’s a certain story arc that just about every Luc Besson film has in common, a theme likely inspired by Hitchcock, of the “everyman” caught up in events far beyond their understanding. Even the earliest Hitch works like The 29 Steps explore this theme to great effect. It works well because we then quickly identify with the protagonist and yearn to see them succeed and overcome the challenges that they encounter on their quest for the mythic happy ending.
Besson, however, is in love with American action stunts and cinema by directors like Michael Bay (Transformers), so all of his films are characterized by that regular guy caught up in events but also by this guy turning out to have astonishing martial arts or fighting skills, skills that would give even James Bond a run for his money.
Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is the logical next step in this formula, a scroungy, down-on-her-luck American girl living in Taiwan and hustling to make ends meet. As the film progresses, she turns into a proto-human, a woman who evolves beyond all human limitations and, ultimately, in a sequence surely inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, beyond even a corporeal existence.
We first meet Lucy outside a sleek hotel, being begged by her boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbaek) to do a quick courier job and deliver a mysterious briefcase to a Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi) who is staying at the hotel. But Jang is far more dangerous than Richard ever expects and after a horrific encounter with him, Lucy is knocked unconscious and then awakens with a bag of the dangerous hormone CPH4 sewn into her abdomen. She’s become a drug mule.
After being beaten by thugs while chained to a basement wall, however, the bag leaks and Lucy begins to assimilate the CPH4, giving her the ability to access more and more of her brain’s processing capacity. She quickly identifies human cognition researcher Norman (Morgan Freeman) in Paris and shows up to ask his help in understanding what’s happening to her, even as she gains control over her body and the world around her, an element reminiscent of Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix.
The basic storyline is terrific and while the whole “we only use a small percentage of our brain capacity” aspect is long-since debunked, it’s still a great starting point for a thoughtful film about evolution, human cognitive abilities and the purpose of our individual lives. Except that’s not this film. The recent, rather similar film Limitless has more of this to great effect, but Lucy is a Besson film, and it too quickly devolves into a parade of extreme action sequences.
Even when the action sequences don’t make sense.
At a point where we already know Lucy can control people with her thoughts, for example, she jumps into Parisian cop Capt. Del Rio (Amr Waked)’s police car and proceeds to drive pell-mell through Paris, causing accidents left and right as she goes the wrong way on roads, drives on sidewalks, etc. She can control people remotely, so why wouldn’t she just have them all stop their vehicles so she can safely wind through them?
As the film proceeds and Lucy gains more and more brain capacity, her powers grow to where she can change her physical appearance, notably including the length and color of her hair. Her eyes are constantly changing shape and color — a really cool effect — and yet she can’t seem to instruct her body to heal any more quickly when she’s injured.
And then there are the constant cutaways to stock science class footage. It’s a horrible stylistic blunder and keeps changing an already short action film, running barely 88 minutes, into a dull documentary in the most trite, cliché way. As a viewer it’s just jarring and pointless, certainly not adding anything to the story.
All of which is tremendously disappointing because I really enjoy Johansson as an actor, always find Freeman a solid supporting actor and even enjoy Besson’s best action movies (of particular note are The Professional, The Transporter, and La Femme Nikita). Starting with a great premise, Lucy just falls apart and by the time it ends, it’s more akin to a sizzle reel for a stuntman training school than the work of a talented director with a top-notch cast.
See this is you’re addicted to action movies, but don’t expect too much, and be kind when Lucy falls apart and you start wanting to groan at the dumb ending, especially the ghastly stupid final sentence voice over that should have never made it past the cutting room floor. All told, we really do expect more from you, Mr. Besson.