Film Review: Lucy

Drugs unleash the full potential of the brain with tragic results in Luc Besson's sci-fi adventure.

A thriller with a split personality, Lucy is part action blockbuster, part PBS documentary. A captivating performance by Scarlett Johansson is the key here. She could help turn Lucy into a surprise summer hit.

In the opening scenes, Johansson's title character is a rootless, fun-loving student in Taipei who parties a bit too hard with the wrong people. A flirtation with Richard (Pilou Asbæk) turns ugly when he asks her to drop off a briefcase in a luxury hotel. Within minutes Lucy has been abducted by Jang (Choi Min-sik), a Korean gangster first seen spattered with blood from still-twitching victims. (Director Luc Besson's screenplay tempers deadpan sadism with pitch-black humor.)

As Jang's "Limey" underling (Julian Rhind-Tutt) explains later, Lucy is now a mule who has to transport designer drugs which have been sewn into her body to France. When the drugs leak into her bloodstream, she develops superhuman mental powers.

In short order, Lucy gains control over material objects and then time itself. But the powers come with a price, like the gradual disintegration of her body. Lucy enlists the help of Norman (Morgan Freeman), a brain expert, in a race to find a solution to the drug's actions.
Lucy also draws the attention of Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), a French cop who soon finds himself in a battle against Jang and his men. The cops and gangsters allow Besson to deliver an arsenal of action moves, expertly staged and highly diverting, if not exactly central to the story.

The real heart of Lucy is a debate about the mind. What is intelligence? How do we use it? How do we differ from animals? Is there a way to tap into all of the parts of the brain? Morgan Freeman's smooth, warm, reassuring voice delivers most of this material, accompanied by often astonishing nature footage.

Besson has spent years studying intelligence, and is a founder of ICM, a well-regarded brain and spinal column research center. But as science, Lucy is bananas. The powers Lucy develops make for splendid visuals, but are so over-the-top that they throw the script's logic out of whack.

If the narratives never quite mesh, Besson still handles them with his typical verve. Lucy moves with a focus and determination that is bracing. Besson doesn't waste shots, he doesn't over-cut, and he knows how to pull viewers along, even when the material is haywire.

Few directors stage shootouts as quickly and effortlessly as Besson does, and Lucy's car chase through Paris matches any this year. Here's where Johansson's presence really pays off. It's a treat watching her stride through the grimy warehouses, emergency rooms and alleyways usually reserved for male heroes. That alone should be worth a lot at the box office.

Since the drugs alter her personality, Lucy is a tricky role to play. Johansson works out a credible approach to the transformations her character undergoes. More to the point, she delivers a gritty, fully engaged performance, never playing down to the story or her audience.

Freeman is always a delight to watch, although he frankly has little to do here. Egyptian actor Waked makes a strong impression, again in a part that doesn't give him much to work with. Fanboys will savor Oldboy's Choi Min-sik, who projects an unhinged menace even during a spa session.

Besson's EuropaCorp production team gives Lucy the look and feel of a luxurious, finely tuned sports car. Even when it is spinning out of control, Lucy is a joy to watch.

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