“Lucy” reminds me a lot of “Brainstorm” (1983) and “Dreamscape” (1984), two films from my high school days that reran endlessly on HBO. Both tried to paper over unwieldy concepts by throwing bucketfuls of cutting-edge special effects at a dull story that eventually collapsed. “Lucy” isn’t dull but it is uninspired and does collapse.
After wowing the critical class with the ambitious and artistic trilogy of “La Femme Nikita” (1990), “The Professional” (1994), and “The Fifth Element” (1997), at the turn of the century, writer/director Luc Besson returned to the genre roots of “Nikita” and — starting with the “Transporter” franchise in 2002 — stayed there. Among other titles, as writer and producer, Besson’s delivered “Taken 1, 2, (and soon) 3,” the underrated “From Paris with Love” (2010), “The Family” (2013), and most recently, “3 Days to Kill.”
For “Lucy” Besson decided to add “director” to his credits. Unfortunately, the director’s signature style for action sequences that keeps us coming back decades later to “The Professional” and “Nikita,” is nowhere to be found. The action is as generic as the concept is “high” and impossible to grasp. If humans really only use 10% of their potential brainpower, Besson is directing with half that tied behind his back.
When we meet Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy, she’s just another dim libertine party girl/student who somehow found her way to Taiwan from America. Thanks to her latest sleazy boyfriend (they’ve been together one week), Lucy quickly finds herself surrounded by black-suited Asian gangsters run by Jang (“Oldboy’s” Min-sik-Choi), a blood-splattered crime lord up to something unspeakable in the other room.
Jang needs a mule to smuggle a new synthetic drug to Paris, and because he’s a man who gets what he wants, the drug is surgically implanted in Lucy’s abdomen.
Due to a beating from a rebuffed rapist, the drug leaks into Lucy’s bloodstream. The result is our heroine slowly gaining access to 100% of her brainpower. Now she’s Neo from “The Matrix,” a supremely self-aware god able to manipulate the world around her at will. Her only weakness is the need for more of the drug.
With a couple of well-crafted action scenes that made a lick of sense, “Lucy” could have overcome its misplaced Kubrickian ambitions. The primary problem is that early in the second act, Lucy uses her mind to lift 20 gun-wielding cops in the air, knock them out, and drop them back to the floor. Knowing she had that ability using just 40% of her brainpower, we’re somehow supposed to believe that with 70% or 80% Jang’s thugs are still a threat.
That’s the problem with concepts this wide open and ambitious: there are no set rules, and without rules the plot ceases to make sense. I still don’t understand what happened to Lucy in that airplane bathroom. For some reason, she starts to dissolve. Ingesting more of the drug apparently saves her, but it never threatens her again. The next time she takes the drug, she… oh, forget it.
For reasons that at first baffle but do eventually make sense, this supreme being still needs help from Morgan Freeman, who plays Professor Exposition; a character that has no purpose other than to try and help the audience make sense of the story.
“Lucy” is never boring. The location work is interesting. Johannson isn’t unpleasant to look at. The runtime is only 90-minutes. But I promise you there are plenty of better ways to spend that time.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC