Is it possible for a movie to be brainy and stupid at the same time?
Luc Besson’s “Lucy,” in which Scarlett Johansson plays a superwoman able to play god with her scientifically enhanced mind, makes a pretty compelling case.
Besson, who hasn’t directed a satisfying action vehicle since “The Fifth Element” in 1997, doesn’t exactly return to form here so much as scatter it all over the place, with the committed Johansson providing a unifying force at the center of the madness.
Though Besson’s screenplay toys clumsily with big ideas involving the history of human consciousness, the plot is simple: The Tapei-based Lucy (Johansson) agrees to deliver a package to the mob on behalf of her boyfriend, who’s promptly killed. Captured by the bad guys, she’s forced into surgery in which the henchmen place a package of drugs into her abdomen in the hopes of turning her into their mule. Instead, when the packet is accidentally punctured, Lucy absorbs their power. Providing de facto narration, these scenes are intercut with a lectured delivered by a psychology professor (Morgan Freeman) on the untapped possibilities of the human mind: Turns out we only use 1%! What might happen if we harnessed its full powers? As Lucy’s eyes turn blue, we find out.
And that’s when “Lucy” shifts from a patently dumb movie — when Lucy is first captured, Besson cuts to shots of a cheetah ensnaring its prey — to a dumb movie that has a terrific time as it goes flying off the rails. Lucy shoots and kicks her way to freedom, finds a doctor to explain her condition, and battles through hordes of other baddies to get to Freeman and share her revelations about life, the universe and everything. The sheer mania that Besson brings to individual showdowns allows it to earn its outright ridiculousness. In the final moments, the entire enterprise literally collapses into a singularity of light, sound and action, as if even Besson himself can’t contain the cockamamie premise he’s dreamed up.
Until then, there’s plenty of enjoyably bonkers moments. When Lucy forces a surgeon at gunpoint to remove the drugs from her bowels, she casually makes a call to her mother in the process, too smart to even flinch at the pain. She kisses a baffled police officer just to remind herself about love. A closing shootout inexplicably involves rocket launchers and a blank white environment that harkens back to “THX-1138.” Through it all, handy title cards keep track of Lucy’s evolving brain power in increments of 10 percent, as if she’s proceeding through levels of a video game. In fact, the movie excels at foregrounding a video game aesthetic with its narrative. Lucy knocks out one group of assailants with the wave of her hand, later forcing another to levitate with comical results.
But if she’s an excellent gamer, she’s also found the ultimate cheat code — the character’s so powerful that she’s never really in danger, which prevents the movie from generating any real sense of suspense. Still, Besson’s underlying concept is so absurd that “Lucy” never lacks urprise. The only predictable ingredient is its femme fatale, a motif found throughout Besson’s filmography ever since 1990’s “La Femme Nikita.”
With Johansson’s electrifying turn, the conceit of a tough woman defying the powerful men around her takes on cartoonish dimensions. In addition to offering a strong female superhero, still a rarity, it winds up providing a companion piece to Johansson’s similarly domineering turn in Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” where she plays a seductive alien stalking male prey.
Both movies find Johansson transforming into an unearthly being coming to grips with foreign senses, proving her willingness to use her physicality in unique ways. One shot in “Lucy” that finds the title character suddenly evaporating into particles while hiding an airplane bathroom, which bears a marked similarity to an effect used repeatedly in “Under the Skin,” ranks among one of the wildest scenes of the year.
Ultimately, Besson is better at finding charged moments than fusing them together, but it’s impossible to ignore his maniacal vision. Various moments pulsate with fragmented possibilities, alternately channeling the adrenaline-fueled “Crank” movies, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “The Matrix,” never achieving their greatness, but capturing tidbits of its DNA.
As “Lucy” builds toward its climax, the movie concludes with a series of visual punchlines rather than any tidy conclusion. There’s never any question as to the inherent silliness, but Besson makes it endearing and unexpected anyway, delivering an unapologetically stupid antidote to stupid movies that don’t even bother to try something different. “Lucy” doesn’t hold together, but with its flashy innovation, Besson’s trying to freshen the formula. It’s the kind of freewheeling mess of a movie you wish studios would try out more often.
“Lucy” opens nationwide on Friday.