The first thing you need to know about Lucy is that it's not the movie its trailers would have you believe. Flaunting Avengers star Scarlett Johansson as a no-nonsense gunslinger, its trailers suggest that Lucy is a wall-to-wall action-thriller with a healthy dose of science fiction. However, the latest from writer-director Luc Besson is far more cerebral than these ads let on. While a non-stop Johansson-fronted action vehicle is something I'd gladly see, what Lucy offers is a bit more rich, though perhaps too rushed to sell its grander premise.
Johansson stars as Lucy, a student whose life is thrown radically off course when she's abducted by a pack of vicious gangsters and forced to be their international mule for a new synthetic drug, CPH4. A bag of the powdered drug sits in Lucy's lower intestine after a crude surgery. But when she's assaulted en route to her forced flight out the country, it bursts, flooding her body with high doses of a chemical that in its natural state is intended to help a fetus grow bones. For Lucy, this blue would-be club drug instead expands her mind, allowing her to use more of it (percentage-wise) than any human before her.
Forget that Lucy blatantly ignores how the human brain actually works. Besson doesn't care about that, instead offering Morgan Freeman-intoned lectures on his preferred brand of movie science. If you can get on board with super soldiers or Spider-men, you should be able to accept the premise of Lucy. And to take the philosophical leap the movie offers, you need to just go with the whole "humans only use 10% of their brain" thing.
While Lucy glamorously globetrots to get revenge, discover what's happening to her body, and try to prevent this overdose from killing her, Besson threads in a message about the evolution of mankind. Essentially, by cutting in shots of nature--from cells splitting to animals on the hunt--and speeches on the next revolution of human evolution, Besson wants us recognize that we too are animals, and that evolution is still a part of our lives and place in time. It's a heady concept that unfortunately feels heavy-handed, slapped in with less than subtle cutaways to the aforementioned nature footage. Lucy is like an antelope being chased by a jaguar. Get it? GET IT!?
In a movie season overrun with blockbusters with big fat running times, part of me was relieved that Lucy runs at a lean 90 minutes. Within this time, it's a solidly engaging adventure. I can't stress that enough. Johansson's star power makes us instantly like this American girl lost abroad. But Besson's writing also allows enough time to get to know and like Lucy as a person. Were this written in the 1980s, Lucy would probably be some promiscuous party girl whose run-in with gangster could be in some sense blamed on her "bad behavior." Instead, Lucy is quickly established as a woman who won't shy away for a night at the club, but is betrayed by her new boyfriend after showing a healthy suspicion when he asks her for a strange favor. Basically, her tragedy could presumably befall any of us.
From here Johansson locks us in, pitch-perfectly playing Lucy in peril. She cries and begs for her life, and we're rooted into her plight. Later, a telephone call to her mother fills in the gaps of Lucy's life, deftly giving her a history and a family within what is essentially a monologue that Johansson delivers with heartbreaking vulnerability. But as Lucy evolves, her common emotions are shed. Here, too, Johansson excels, playing a heroine who has risen bove petty human concerns and "obstacles." Seeing the transformation from smiling and sassy young woman of the first act to the stoic and calculating leap of evolution she becomes by the third is just more reason to celebrate Scarlett Johansson this year. It's actually sort of the reverse arc of her exemplary performance in Under The Skin.
With a heroine who sheds her emotions like a snake sheds its skin, Lucy needs some supporting characters to respond to the wonder that is the rapidly evolving title character. Adding depth and color to the supporting cast are Analeigh Tipton as Lucy's bewildered roommate, Julian Rhind-Tutt as a smiling British villain, Amr Waked as a cop instantly fascinated by this next level femme fatale, Morgan Freeman as a theoretical scientist who lays down the exposition of Lucy's change, and Choi Min-sik as a merciless drug king pin. Each of the above helps keep Lucy sizzling with energy and earnestness, despite its ham-handed philosophical aims.
Ultimately, Lucy is solidly entertaining, though at times its leaps in logic feel a bit silly. Nonetheless, those looking for a Scarlett Johansson actioner won't go away disappointed. She is a fearless and captivating warrior as Lucy, throwing down thugs with hand-to-hand combat, master marksmanship, or mind powers. But along with some jaw-dropping action scenes and cringe-inducing violence, you're given some food for thought. At times, Lucy's earnestness feels sentimentally old school, harkening back to Besson's early days circa La Femme Nikita and The Professional. While its intensely sincere tone might feel a bit dated, it's a welcome sentiment that threads Lucy with a sense of self-importance it's easy to get on board with.