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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Review: Lucy (2014)

Lucy is a profoundly odd film to have been one of 2014's most profitable movies. It's stupider than a brick and genuinely pretentious to boot. Its action is utterly disinterested in the immediacy and sense of danger we typically crave. It features repeated visual callbacks to Stanley Kubrick's intellectual sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. It makes no goddamn sense at all. It's... still kind of a blast, honestly.

Lucy follows a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) who gets in deep with a Korean drug smuggler thanks to a scumbag boyfriend. After unwittingly delivering a new synthetic, consciousness-expanding drug to them, her stomach is cut open and the bag of drugs is put inside her so she can sneak it past airport security easier, but a moment of violence from a pair of other smugglers breaks open the baggie in her stomach, forcing her to absorb the drug and revealing some... interesting side effects. The more she takes, the more powerful she becomes - and the more divorced from her humanity. As the drug pushers hunt her down, she finds herself becoming less and less tethered to the life and conflicts she knew as she begins to pursue a deeper question.

Writer/director Luc Besson's style has always been... well, excitable, we'll say, but Lucy reaches levels of hyperactivity rivaled only by the infamous Nevaldine/Taylor Crank movies. As Morgan Freeman's character, Professor Norman, lectures about how much 'cerebral capacity' a human uses (10%, trotting out that widely disproven myth) compared to various animals, Besson cuts furiously with literally anything else to make the exposition more palatable. Talking for 30 seconds about reproduction? Sounds like the perfect time for a montage of animals humping each other! Bragging about what humanity has accomplished using only 10% of its brainpower? I can't even begin to describe the theme of this montage, but it certainly livened things up a bit. If Run Lola Run was film editing evolved for the MTV age, then Lucy is film for the Twitter age, almost every scene expressed in miniature bursts of information.

Scarlett Johansson is just really excellent in the role, giving 100% to a film that barely demanded half that. 2014 was the Year of Scarlett, as she gave a performance of almost staggering depth in Under the Skin and brought Black Widow to shockingly vibrant life in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In Lucy, she excels both as an in-over-her-head drug mule and as the increasingly alien intelligence the drugs are turning her into. Johansson has always been accused of a certain emotional flatness, particularly in her voice, and Besson puts it to great use as the film pushes forward, but make no mistake: This is Scarlett's show, through and through.

She's joined by Morgan Freeman, who is basically playing Professor Morgan Freeman, and Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy), the sort of casually darkhearted villain Besson so excels at writing. While Freeman spends the first third of the film as the voice of authority, I enjoyed the way his role shifted from 'intellectual voice of authority' to 'baffled amateur witnessing the birth of post-humanity'. But it is Choi Min-Sik who stands out the most (beyond Johansson, of course) as Mr. Jang, the utterly unrepentant, casually violent madman. Sadly, while he has fun with his brief role, Choi Min-Sik is given perilously little to do; Besson's villains used to shine brighter than anyone else, but Lucy's greatest villain is the limitations of the human body, a struggle that becomes more and more prominent as the film moves forward.

Still, Lucy is almost certainly Besson's best film since The Fifth Element, and it may even surpass that cult sci-fi hit - it shares in its cheesiness, but lacks its commitment to it. We sometimes use 'stupid' as a pejorative when talking about action movies like Transformers, and make no mistake: Lucy is a stupid film. But unlike much of its brethren, Lucy is also a deeply weird movie from an auteur filmmaker allowed to cut loose and have a blast with one of the biggest stars in the world. It's fast-paced and exciting with a wicked sense of humor about its preposterous premise. For the first time since the 1990s, when Besson exploded onto the genre scene with La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, and The Fifth Element, he's made a movie worth seeing. 

Sort of.

Lucy is currently available to purchase on Amazon Instant Video, and will come out on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 20th, 2015. Written and directed by Luc Besson, Lucy stars Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, and Choi Min-sik.
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