Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson
Producer: Virginie Silla
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-sik, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbæk, Analeigh Tipton, Nicolas Phongpheth
Running Time: 89 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Back in the 1990’s Luc Besson was considered to be in the top tier of action directors, infusing his movies like La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, and The Fifth Element with a distinctive European style and intelligence, while also delivering a unique action aesthetic. It was in the post-2000 era though that Besson really caught the attention of martial arts movie fans, not as a director, but as the guy who wrote and produced some of the best western martial arts movies of the time.
It was Besson that gave us Jason Statham in The Transporter and its sequels, marking the Brit as the go-to man for no nonsense action movies that he still carries the flag for even now. It was Besson that gave us Jet Li’s best English language movies with Kiss of the Dragon and Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog). It was Besson that introduced the world to Parkour in the movie District B13, and it was Besson that convinced us all that Liam Neeson could be a man with “a very specific set of skills” in Taken.
Besson continued to also direct, including the 2011 biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi, which saw Michelle Yeoh stepping into the role of Burma’s inspirational fighter for democracy. However it was arguably the movies that he was indirectly involved with rather than his own that received the most attention internationally. So, with the news that he would be both writing and directing Lucy, the tale of an American female living in Taiwan, who’s forced to become a drug mule by having packets of a dangerous new substance surgically planted in her stomach, only to fight back, he had our attention.
Scarlett Johansson would be playing the pivotal role of Lucy, having recently got to flex her action muscles as the Black Widow in both The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She’d be ably backed up by Morgan Freeman, who himself had starred in the Luc Besson scripted Jet Li movie Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog), and the most exciting news for fans of Asian cinema was that Korean actor Choi Min-sik would be playing the villain of the piece. Min-sik will be most recognizable to western audiences as the main character from 2003’s Oldboy, however he essentially makes any movie he’s in worth watching, most recently as the legendary Korean admiral Yi Sunshin in the period epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents.
So, all the ingredients are there for 90 minutes of vintage Besson – the strong female lead which promised to echo the likes of Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita. The gritty urban setting of Leon: The Professional mixed with the sci-fi concepts in The Fifth Element. All topped off with the Asian influence that Besson has clearly shown a strong love for over the past decade.
The story of Lucy is as initially simple as previously mentioned. She’s an American living in Taiwan, and after the boyfriend she’s only been dating for a week convinces her to drop off a mysterious suitcase to Mr. Jang, played by Min-sik, she’s sedated and wakes up to be told she has a packet of a new drug called CPH4 planted in her stomach. She’s given her passport and told to go back to the US, where she’ll be picked up by some of Min-sik’s lackeys and have the packet removed, at which point she’ll be free to go. Along the way though, things go wrong when she’s assaulted by a pair of thugs, and after a violent confrontation the packet tears inside her, unleashing the drug into the bloodstream, which leads to her being the first human to be able to utilize 100% of their brain capacity.
It’s the stuff of B-movie goodness, but it becomes clear from the start the Besson is aiming much higher than a run of the mill action flick. After a 2001: A Space Odyssey style opening, the whole scene of Lucy being taken is juxtaposed with a deer being hunted by a leopard. It’s obviously supposed to be very symbolic, but the imagery comes across as a little goofy. Depending on how much you buy into the movies concept of how time and evolution is all connected (or something like that) will largely determine how you enjoy the rest of it. I say this because you also have an awful lot of Morgan Freeman lecturing on the human brain capacity and the history of humankind, which treats us to more symbolic juxtaposition of erupting volcanoes, rocket launches, and animals humping each other.
Thankfully for those who are a little lost, it regularly flashes across the screen the exact percentage of how much of Lucy’s brain capacity has been utilized, kind of like an idiots guide to all the philosophical mumbling. Lucy of course eventually realizes that something unique is happening to her, and as she strolls into a Taiwan hospital with gun in hand, something which not a single person seems to notice, she orders the doctors to take the drugs out of her. In one of many scenes which threaten to be laughable, she proceeds to call her mother in the US while the surgeon slices open her stomach, and gives a rather bizarre speech about how she can remember the taste of her mother’s breast milk and the feeling of her bones growing. Luckily just like all of the people who have just witnessed Lucy strolling through the hospital with a gun, her mother is remarkably unfazed by all of these revelations.
I guess it was at this point that I kind of gave up on Lucy. It’s an extremely silly movie, which could well be enjoyed, but the silliness is handled in such a heavy handed and serious way that it sucks all the fun out of it. Lucy herself is not a particularly likeable character, she’s been dating a guy who’s obviously an idiot, she shoots a poor taxi driver in the leg just for saying he doesn’t speak English (in the middle of Taiwan!), and even kills a hospital patient, which she justifies by saying he had a brain tumor which he wouldn’t have survived anyway. This kind of stuff could have come across as darkly comical, but here it just comes across as unpleasant.
Min-sik also isn’t given a lot to do except scowl and have his hands stabbed, a brutal experience for anyone to go through, but one which he seems to have recovered from in the very next scene he appears in. Most interesting of all though is the direction Lucy takes in its final third, in which instead of making her an unstoppable force of nature, the ending goes for a mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey combined with elements of Akira, as she reaches 100% capacity and we’re treated to all sorts of time travel and CGI assisted silliness. At one point she’s almost eaten by a velociraptor, no joke.
All in all Lucy should have been a breezy 90 minutes of sci-fi B-movie silliness and action. However Besson’s seeming insistence that he was making a bold statement about the nature of humanity too often see it get bogged down in heavy handed exposition and scenes that make little sense, which only stand out more due to its deadly serious tone. While everyone hoped that Lucy would see Besson utilizing 100% of his directing capacity, sadly the final product only looks like he reached 50% at best.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10