Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014) was released twenty years after his movie The Professional (aka Leon), and at this point there’s very little through line in the filmmaker. Lucy stars Scarlett Johansson as an unintentional drug mule who gains the power to use more of her brain – the film is based on the old (debunked) idea that people only use ten percent of their brains — after an accident unlocks more and more percentage of her mind’s capacity. Like so much of Besson’s later output, it’s a clever enough idea done well enough, and with a few good set pieces to make for a decent popcorn flick, but not much more.
Johansson’s titular character starts the film refusing to deliver a briefcase for her boyfriend. The boyfriend is nervous that something bad is going to happen, and so he wants Lucy to cover for him, which she initially refuses until he handcuffs the briefcase to her. She reluctantly delivers it and (as was predicted) all hell breaks loose as the boyfriend is murdered and Lucy is forced to bring it to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), who is a classic Besson archvillain that loves him some violence. This harrowing ordeal for Lucy, which goes on for quite a bit of screen time, is intercut with stock footage of predators and prey and a lecture by professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), who is fascinated with the possibility of evolution and the notion that humans only use ten percent or so of their brains — though the wording is changed so it’s not just a Limitless redress. To illustrate this, Besson makes the odd decision of flashing back to the first human ape creature, and using (apparently) a ton of stock footage that doesn’t necessarily seem to emphasize Norman’s point. Honestly, it looks like filler, but perhaps in recognizing that once Lucy gets her powers she’s no longer vulnerable, he wanted to stretch out the first act as long as possible.
Lucy eventually has a packet of experimental drugs sewn inside of her and arrives at where she’s supposed to deliver the drugs (though the whole drug mule-ing thing in the film is a bit nonsensical in terms of willing and unwilling participants), but her captors punch her right in the drugs, and that causes them to mix with her system in a ways that unlocks her brain’s potential. Quickly, Lucy begins to understand multiple languages, medical procedures, and more. Though she fears she will be dead from the drugs in the next day or so, her theory is that if she can hit one hundred percent of her brain powers that something good or interesting might happen, and that will require getting assistance from Professor Norman — in the hopes of getting ahead of her physical and mental changes – and from French detective Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), a cop she enlists to arrest the three other drug mules even though they’re flying to three different countries. But as she left Mr. Jang alive, he and his men are looking to kill her regardless of her superpowers.
Luc Besson got his start in French cinema with a series of movies that offered a comic book-inspired new wave cool. If the French new wave were (as Jean-Luc Godard said) the children of Karl Marx and Coca-Cola, this next generation erred on the side of soda. But these early Besson movies were exciting and personal. He hit his zenith in 1994 with Leon, which manages to be both a thrilling action movie and a deeply personal film (in ways that are actually a little gross, all things), and it led him to getting the keys to the Hollywood kingdom. He then made 1997’s The Fifth Element, a fascinating, very French blockbuster that is undeniably an accomplishment, but isn’t as funny or as much fun as it wants to be, and then 1999’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, which starred his then-muse Milla Jovovich, and was meant to be an Oscar picture, but turned out to be a stinky pile of poop. Besson moved away from Hollywood filmmaking, but has been active as a producer of low budget action movies, often directed by people like Louis Leterrier, Olivier Megaton, and now McG, and achieved great international success with the Taken franchise. Besson has moved back to Hollywood filmmaking with 2013’s The Family (the super forgettable Witness Protection comedy starring Robert De Niro), but with Lucy he had the biggest hit of his career, so it’s possible we could get a whole new wave of Besson-directed studio pictures. But as a filmmaker he seems more driven by catchy but stupid premises than any great passion.
The director still has an eye for composition, and the set pieces are staged well enough, but the intercutting at the beginning between Freeman’s lecture (and the stock footage therein) and Johansson’s situation — which also cuts to metaphorical animal footage – combines with the film’s less than ninety minute running time to give the film the feel of a super cheap exploitation film from the get-go. Considering the arbitrariness of some of the set pieces, like the car chase that features rampant destruction simply to goose the story, it almost makes the film feel like the movie was assembled Ed Wood-style from whatever they could find at the stock footage store. There’s something fun about getting a new iteration of this kind of filmmaking if you’re someone who loves bad horror movies, though much of this was probably intentional. Besson has produced a lot of low budget, high gloss action movies, and where this has a little more money than many of those, it’s just a soulless as a Taken sequel, though it is much, much goofier, which also makes it fascinating.
It’s possible that the reason why Lucy was such an explosive hit is because that central figure is played by Scarlett Johansson, who was coming off Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The film plays into her strengths as someone who comes off as emotionally distant, but also someone who can kick ass. The character starts off as a whimpering patsy, but eventually she becomes such a powerful and intelligent entity that she no long evinces much emotion. Johansson delivers this well, though one might be better served watching Under the Skin instead (that though doesn’t feature any action sequences). Johansson is also almost the entire show: Morgan Freeman is here to deliver exposition as only he can, while Amr Waked doesn’t really seem to understand what he’s supposed to do (other than shoot some bad guys), nor does the film explain how a French policeman can stop drug mules in three different countries and get their packets to a non-government official in such a timely fashion… but thinking about the film too hard is a mistake as the plot is souped-up nonsense. The only actor besides Johansson who really gets to pop is Min-sik Choi, and that’s part and parcel for early Besson who reveled in having Gary Oldman go as big as possible. Choi is definitely of that mold, and the film offers faint reminders of earlier Besson films as the science fiction elements wouldn’t be too far out of place in The Fifth Element.
Besson knows how to deliver popcorn, and the film plays well with an audience — even if the narrative doesn’t make much sense if you think about it, and the ending is more a stopping point than a conclusion. At this point it’s likely that Besson will never make another truly great film, but at least he put it all in Leon, and once delivered greatness. One is all you need, but as long as Besson’s post-it notes masquerading as scripts generate the box office they have, we’ll keep getting more and more of these films.
Universal’s Blu-ray comes with a DVD and digital copy and the film is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. The presentation is immaculate, and as an action movie the soundtrack is impressively dense and textured. Extras are limited to two featurettes, neither of great interest. The first the standard making of “The Evolution of Lucy” (16 min.), which hints that there was a longer introduction to the main character, but mostly talks to the main actors and gets them to say platitudes about their coworkers, while “Cerebral Capacity: The True Science of Lucy” (10 min.) tries to talk about the science behind the film. Sure.