by Glenn Lovell
In 1990, French director Luc Besson hit pay dirt with the international sensation “La Femme Nikita,” a stylish, full-throttle thriller about a street gamin who, in a government experiment in reconditioning, is rebuilt as cold-blooded assassin. Less than 10 years later an “exhausted” Besson announced his retirement from directing; he would now concentrate on producing and writing. Lucky for us he didn’t keep to his word. The action auteur’s latest brings him full circle: it’s another femme-themed crime thriller, this one fusing action, humor and sci-fi.
Subbing for Anne Parillaud’s Nikita as the victim of a nasty makeover is Scarlett Johansson, last seen here as the extraterrestrial siren in “Under the Skin.” (Talk about makeovers!)
Johansson’s Lucy is an initially clueless American in Taiwan who is messed with for much of the first 20 minutes, but then pays out painful retribution. Lucy and three other tourists, captives of a hands-on crime boss (Min-sik Choi of “Oldboy”), are invited to become drug mules. Pouches of a powerful new designer drug called CPH4 are sown into their tummies. Destinations: Rome, Paris, Berlin, London.
With an assist from a pair of thugs who use her as a soccer ball, Lucy’s pouch ruptures and the drug enters her system. Rather than OD’ing, she becomes Wonder Woman, the female of the future, complete with x-ray vision, ultra-sensitive hearing, lightning-fast reflexes. The average human, we’re told in a lecture by a brainy scientist (Morgan Freeman), is lucky to access 10%-20% of his brain. The pharmaceutically enhanced Lucy quickly triples that. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking; she will eventually pixilate into pure energy, Besson’s reassuring improvement on Kubrick’s Starchild.
Yes, “Lucy” is a pretty silly concoction, blending comic-book action, CG tours of the brain and internal organs, H.G. Wellsian time travel, and National Geographic cutaways to cheetahs, gazelles and Cro-Magnon Man to comment on the ongoing evolutionary struggle. It’s a bit like watching the primeval forest scenes from “The Tree of Life” spliced into “Taken.” It doesn’t make much sense ‒ and the blank-faced Johansson elicits little sympathy ‒ but it’s loads of undemanding fun, especially when Lucy teams up with a handsome, if ineffectual, French detective (Amr Waked) whose what-the-hell incredulity mirrors our own.
LUCY ✮✮✮ With Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Mini-sik Choi, Amr Waked. Directed, scripted by Luc Besson. 90 min. Rated: R (for torture scenes, knifing and shooting violence)