Marvel may be the toast of Hollywood thanks to its string of colourful summer blockbusters, but it’s arguable that Luc Besson’s been making his own kinds of comic book movies since the 1980s. From his early cinéma du look work such as Subway, The Big Blue and La Femme Nikita to the present (including The Adventures Of Adele Blanc Sec, which was adapted from a comic), Besson’s displayed an unwavering eye for striking imagery. His shots have a graphic quality, like the frames from a cartoon strip.
Lucy is Besson’s take on an X-Men-like superhero film, in which Scarlett Johansson is turned from ordinary 25-year-old to transcendental telekinetic warrior after being pressed into service as a drug mule. Having ingested an experimental substance called CPH4 (“It’s so new, we haven’t even come up with a street name for it yet,” quips one character), Lucy busts out of a stronghold belonging to gangster boss Jang (Choi Min-sik), and proceeds to lead the bad guys a merry dance across Asia and Europe, as both parties have their own reasons for retrieving the remaining stash of pharmaceuticals.
Lucy is yet another film that takes on the now thoroughly discredited theory that we only use a small percentage of our brain power – the idea being that if we could harness its full potential, we could do all kinds of wondrous and potentially scary things, like controlling minds and levitating armchairs. It’s something we saw in Neil Burger’s surprisingly good 2011 thriller Limitless, and Besson pushes it to similarly outlandish extremes here. As the drug coursing through Lucy’s veins begins to take hold, her powers increase until she’s gone full-on Akira, suspending bad guys in mid-air and causing all kinds of CG-charged havoc.
Besson’s more recent films – either as writer, director, or both, as here – have blended a strange grab bag of genres, and Lucy’s no exception. Its plot recalls everything from the HG Wells-derived 1937 fantasy The Man Who Could Work Miracles, noir thriller D.O.A., and the largely-forgotten 90s Terminator rip-off Eve Of Destruction, all with a splash of fellow Frenchman Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void’s kaleidoscopic trippiness thrown in for good measure.
The sci-fi philosophising, where Morgan Freeman (here playing an eminent neuroscientist) theorises about the future of human intelligence, never quite gels with the action, and it’s clear from the opening shot that even Besson isn’t taking his premise seriously. The first act, in which Johansson’s journey from teary-eyed victim to drug-enhanced hellcat is interspersed with Freeman delivering lectures and repeated shots of animals (including a decidedly sub-Serkis hominid), is borderline goofy. It’s also difficult to recall another recent mainstream film which uses quite so much stock footage.
After a promising, alternately funny, bemusing and even brutal opening, Besson is content to fall back on somewhat rote trappings from 90s Hong Kong cinema: anonymous goons in black suits, two-fisted gunplay, and lots of things moving in slow motion. There are touches of body horror here and there, which Besson seems uninterested in exploring, and Lucy’s more on a par with Roger Donaldson’s pot-boiling Species than the classy work of David Cronenberg. Among all the fury, even the charismatic Min-sik – so memorable in such films as Oldboy and I Saw The Devil – barely registers, and Besson’s story suffers for its lack of a credibly threatening villain; Lucy really needs a bad guy as icily hypnotic as Michael Ironside’s Darryl Revok from Scanners.
Despite all this, the movie has several redeeming features. Besson remains adept at building suspense, even when he’s intercutting rib-shattering violence with gratuitous shots of cheetahs. And with more than a little help from cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, he delivers a sharply-framed and metronomically-paced genre thriller.
Then there’s Scarlett Johansson, who serves as the magnet which holds Besson’s bonkers storyline together. The genre elements may scratch up against one another or sometimes collapse entirely, but Johansson remains a relateable, likeable lead, even when her character does things that go against the grain of a leading lady somewhat. Johansson hasn’t yet been given a solo film of her own as Black Widow, but it’s likely that the powers that be at Marvel have watched Lucy by now, and quietly taken note of just how dynamic she is when given the lead role in an action flick. That she manages to wring pathos and even a hint of poetry from a scene in which she’s operated on while simultaneously chatting to her mother over the telephone is evidence of her strength as an actress.
The final third, having begun with an enjoyably messy car chase, gradually devolves into a weird quagmire of bullets and swirling pixels, as though even Besson doesn’t really know how to bring his thriller to a satisfactory end. As a genre thriller, Lucy is clearly only using 10 percent of its brain, but as a showcase for Johansson’s potential as an action star and Besson’s talent for eye-catching set-pieces, it’s just about worth the price of admission.
Lucy is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd August.
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