Blue Magic: Lucy

07/23/2014 4:00 AM |

Directed by Luc Besson

There are whiplash-inducing moments in Lucy akin to some later Wu-Tang Clan tracks, the ones that come to a screeching halt whenever producer-mastermind RZA insists on jumping on the mic, simultaneously claiming rightful ownership of the work in question, while explicating, sadly, how some artists can never quite go home again. The film is on the one hand a down-and-dirty EuropaCorp production (a la District B13, Columbiana, Wasabi, Taken…) par excellence, and yet also bears unmistakable traces of the earlier films by writer/director&#8212and the studio’s founding father&#8212Luc Besson, infamous both for their jaw-dropping hubris and a nearly childlike disregard for dramatic complexity. To fault Lucy for being cockamamie (or even outright dumb) is fair, except that doing so means inviting a rejoinder every bit as valid today as it was when New Line released The Fifth Element: it’s a Luc Besson movie. What the hell did you expect?

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an expat student in Taipei, bullied by her cowboy-hat-wearing raver boyfriend into delivering a mysterious briefcase within the film’s first three minutes. As he waits outside the dropoff point (a tony hotel lobby), Lucy stares through glass and shots ring out: before you know it he’s been capped, and a small army of toughs in black suits is jostling her upstairs to a mega-exclusive penthouse suite. She’s stumbled into the drug-running empire of one Mr. Jang (Oldboy‘s Choi Min-Sik, described by Besson in an interview as “the Korean Gary Oldman”), who forces her to open the case via the hapless young clerk at the front desk, who hilariously translates for Jang over speakerphone. Once it’s verified that it’s not a bomb, he offers her a job and clubs her in the face; Lucy wakes up with a stomach sewn full of bags carrying a crystalline blue powder&#8212a new drug, it’s revealed later, meant to be a synthetic of the neuroregulators contained in breastmilk.

Besson intercuts these admirably claustrophobic scenes of violence with a neurology lecture from a Dr. Norman (Morgan Freeman) at the Sorbonne, but it’s utter hokum: Norman claims humans only use 10% of their brains&#8212a long-disproven superstition (but still touchy enough to set off indignation from one end of the Internet to the other. Whatever). As a means of introducing both his character and Lucy’s sensitive, philosophical side, it’s the Rubicon: here, Besson will either lose you completely, or you’ll submit to the film’s unapologetic stoner-intellectual playfulness, replete with cutaways to animals mating in the wild (because cells are destined to regenerate!) and generic time-lapse photography (apparently copped from Ron Fricke’s Samsara!) When Lucy accidentally absorbs the drugs into her bloodstream, Besson links her mushrooming mental capacity to Norman’s exhortation to ponder the mysteries of the universe, fusing destiny, pseudoscience and CGI together like it’s Crank meets Limitless.

And if shot through with Besson’s signature tough-girl fetish, that’s more or less what Lucy is. Johansson gamely portrays a heroine’s ebbing morality as the drugs take her from human to demigodess, and Besson is too audience-conscious to let his script repeat itself; the film thrives on astute, breakneck forward momentum. There’s just one car chase, wherein Lucy&#8212driving for the first time&#8212sends police Peugeots careening into each other in a whiz-bang pileup that’s practically over the moment the viewer can register it. In one scene, she calls her mom back in the States from under a surgeon’s knife, crying with fear, only for her mom to bemoan a bad cellphone connection: Besson is clearly having so much fun with the whirligig, schlocky material, to deny him is to deny oneself. And the big gundown promised when Jang and 25 armed-to-the-teeth henchmen converge on Lucy and Norman at the school gives way to a metaphysical climax of an entirely different kind: if the ideas aren’t much, the hustle is impeccable.

Opens July 25