Scarlett Johansson’s exciting and eclectic career choices continue with Lucy, a big, brazen, bonkers Besson film.
La Femme Lucita by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Despite having directed several of the most preeminent cult classics of the last two decades in La Femme Nikita, Leon and The Fifth Element, Luc Besson continues to be somewhat of a cinematic enigma. While his directorial output can hardly be described as sedentary or Malick-esque, sixteen feature films over a career that spans 30 years plus illustrates more than a modicum of restraint from the Parisien. More au fait with writing and producing duties, Besson has waited for over ten years to bring Scarlett Johannson’s titular character to the big screen. Lucy is a very enjoyable blockbuster, a throwback to the best of Besson’s frenetic, kinetic and action-packed past, but sometimes lacking the emotion of earlier classics.
Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is a 25-year old woman living and studying in Taipei. When she accompanies her boyfriend on a seemingly straightforward delivery, the drop goes awry and she is kidnapped by Korean mob boss, Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). A highly valuable synthetic drug is surgically implanted into her abdomen for transport out of Taiwan and when she is kicked in the stomach by one of her captors, the bag bursts releasing a large quantity of the drug into her system. Stimulating parts of the brain that normally remain dormant, Lucy develops increasingly powerful physical and mental capabilities including telekinesis, telepathy, enhanced regeneration and control of gravity. As Lucy researches her condition, she reaches out to Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman), whose hypotheses on the untapped potential of the human brain may be crucial to her survival.
Scarlett Johansson has had a remarkably interesting twelve months in cinema. From brass-balled gum-popping Jersey girl Barbara Sugarman in Don Jon, to unnamed alien abductor in Under the Skin, to an operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her, Johansson has nonchalantly shrugged off the status quo of Hollywood casting. It’s fair to say that she hasn’t broken any moulds with her character in Luc Besson’s latest, but what she has done is galvanised her bankability as a leading lady. In a role that demands fewer hallmarks of humanity as the film progresses, Johannson does all of the heavy lifting in the opening thirty minutes of the film. Her progression from reluctant accomplice to petrified captive is convincing and performed with fierce, raw emotion. Also no stranger to stunts from her work in the Marvel universe, Johansson cuts a commanding and formidable figure as amped-up action star.
Despite any narrative protestations to the contrary, Lucy unashamedly revels in wall-to-wall action from start to finish. The plot doesn’t always make total sense (especially where the French police continue to aid our femme fatale regardless of her mysterious motivations), but the point is that it doesn’t really matter. There’s no question that the premise of accessing the full potential of the human brain is intriguing, but all in all Besson just wants to have fun by having Lucy Jedi-mind tricking, back-flipping and sticking Korean henchmen to the ceiling. From a casting standpoint it’s arguable that Min-sik Choi (Oldboy) is underutilised in his role as psychotic mob boss, Mr. Jang, but his ferocious introduction is perfect in setting the tone at the start of the film. Morgan Freeman is right at home as Basil Exposition Professor Norman, and there’s a very funny cameo appearance from Green Wing alumni, Julian Rhind-Tutt as a smarmy surgeon.
While Johansson lends weight and gravitas to often ludicrous science fiction, it’s Luc Besson’s distinctive direction that serves as the unrelentingly winning force behind Lucy. The opening twenty minutes or so of Lucy recalls the verve and narrative economy of Nikita. By and large, this is all familiar territory for the French director and it is immensely enjoyable with his trademark stylised violence, snappy editing and playful sense of humour. Fast cutting footage of big cats hunting their prey in nature into action scenes, it’s clear that he is highlighting that we may not have evolved quite as much as we may think. Zipping from set piece to set piece (which includes the customary action set piece of cars driving the wrong way), once Besson has dispensed with the science of Lucy’s exploding neurons, he just wants to woo us with action. That is not to say that Lucy lacks ambition in any way – as Lucy’s abilities plateau, Besson’s imagination flourishes and the final act hurtles in a very unique and no doubt divisive direction.
Besson has spent too long in the doldrums of producing humdrum action titles and Lucy is in many ways a welcome return to form. Johansson carries the film with an effortlessness we’ve now come to expect following her stunning performance in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin earlier this year. While her performance as the titular Lucy is hugely compelling in the opening half of the film, as the façade of humanity as we know it is stripped away, we are left with a very cold and calculated protagonist. Her transformation is logical – if you’re on board for the lofty high-concept science of neuron boosting – but it serves to drive a wedge between your connection with Johansson’s character. Lucy may well be using 100% of her brain by the time the credits roll, but your empathy will have dropped to 10% – it’s by no means a fatal flaw, but it removes one of Besson’s greatest allies from the equation – emotion. All in all, Lucy should be enjoyed for what it is; bonkers, bravado, brilliant, Besson.
Lucy is released on 22nd August 2014 in the UK