The silly-fun but highly flawed sci-fi shoot-’em-up “Lucy,” like the arty “Under the Skin” earlier this year, highlights what entices about Scarlett Johansson and downplays what doesn’t.
Gorgeous and magnetic, beloved by every camera she meets, Johansson imparts emotion well nonverbally, especially through her eyes. But her line readings can be flat.
“Skin” avoided the flatness by having her alien seductress observe more often than speak. In “Lucy,” Johansson’s titular character is a college student, living in Taiwan, who absorbs an illicit drug that increases her brain capacity and renders her mentally and physically unstoppable. (“Lucy” rests on the idea, debunked by neurologists but beloved by B-movie screenwriters, that humans use only 10 percent of their brain capacity).
Lucy’s growing brain power eclipses her ability to feel. This new emotional stuntedness allows Lucy to shoot up a room of bad guys without remorse and speak with a colorless affect. Thus French director and screenwriter Luc Besson (“La Femme Nikita”) has handed Johansson a role that suits her well.
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She doesn’t haunt here as she does in “Skin.” But that role was special. Lucy would not be a special role even for Kate Beckinsale or Milla Jovovich. It would be another Wednesday on a gun-slinging sci-fi set.
But “Lucy,” which moves from Taiwan to France as it unfolds, bests other cheesy Euro thrillers because Besson actually directed it. I say “actually” because the writer-director-producer’s name appears on so many projects (there might even be a barbecue-sauce line) that his credit no longer impresses as it once did.
But he brings a special quality to movies he directs – a mix of stylish visuals and nihilistic humor. That quality is evident in “Lucy,” just as it was in Besson’s 2013 mob comedy “The Family.” Like “The Family,” “Lucy” is a kick before it falls apart.
It starts outside a luxury Taipei hotel, where party girl Lucy tries to extricate herself from the cowboy-hat-wearing sleaze (Pilou Asbæk) she dated briefly. Cowboy hat wants Lucy to deliver a locked briefcase to a hotel guest named Jang (a commanding Choi Min-sik). When Lucy demurs, cowboy hat handcuffs her to the case.
The men who arrive in the lobby to retrieve Lucy and the case wear sharp suits and menacing expressions. As the criminals lead Lucy to their boss Jang, the cheeky Besson weaves in wildlife footage of a leopard stalking a gazelle.
Inside the sleek suite, the views are great and the décor lovely, if one doesn’t mind the blood seeping from the bodies on the floor. Lucy tries to declare her lack of connection to whatever deal is going on to Jang, who does not speak English. Jang patches in an amateur interpreter by phone, producing funny moments.
Lucy is terrified, though it’s hard to tell what’s shakier, Lucy’s hands or Johansson’s acting, as the case’s contents are revealed. It contains packets of a blue crystalized drug that’s supposed to be the next big thing on the street.
The gangsters knock around Lucy, and later insert a package into her abdomen via hotel-room surgery while she’s out cold. Lucy and other forced drug mules are given passports and airline tickets so they can spread the good word about the drug internationally. But before her flight, a gangster kicks Lucy in the abdomen, breaking the bag. A big dose of the super-drug enters Lucy’s system, leading to sometimes funky special effects and much welcome Johansson fierceness.
Effects in “Lucy” fall into two categories: terrible ones that try illustrate Lucy’s transformation via cheap-looking X-ray luminosity, and good ones that show how Lucy, her mental capacity now great enough to control her surroundings, can pin bad guys to the ceiling with her mind.
Johansson brings a matter-of-factness to the new, mercenary Lucy that’s exhilarating, even if her drug-induced callous behavior is morally repugnant. (But it’s only repugnant if you think about it, and who needs to strain that 10 percent?)
Before Lucy can pin, she shoots, mowing down gangsters, and at one point forcing a surgeon, at gunpoint, to remove the rest of the drugs from her body. Big-brained Lucy already helpfully ascertained that the patient on which the surgeon had been operating would not make it anyhow.
Lucy uses her diagnostic powers to warn her roommate and fellow party girl (the always winning Analeigh Tipton, a St. Francis High School alumna) that her liver’s in trouble. This after Lucy drops by the apartment to type madly on a computer, new windows popping up by the hundreds, the WiFi access in the college girls’ shabby apartment apparently excellent. (Why are these Americans in Taiwan? That question will not be answered in “Lucy,” which offers the character development of a three-minute online telenovela.)
Lucy’s research turns up a brain-capacity expert (Morgan Freeman) in France. She calls him to say she’s read all his research (in a nanosecond), and wants to meet. Freeman is a calming influence on Lucy and briefly on “Lucy,” before it becomes an untenable mishmash of ideas.
Besson seems unable to decide whether he’s making a gangster flick or “The Tree of Life.” In telling the story of fictional brainiac Lucy, he visually evokes another ground-breaking Lucy. Not Lucy Ricardo – who according to Ricky operated at 7 percent – but the 3.2 million-year-old fossil identified as humans’ early ancestor.
Subsequent scenes involving the prehistoric Lucy and dinosaurs mix uneasily with modern action scenes of Jang and his henchmen continuing to chase Lucy into France. Jang still can come after Lucy because of a plot hole as vast as humans’ supposed unused brain power. Early in her discovery of new powers, Lucy extracts revenge on Jang. But instead of shooting first and asking questions never, she stabs the criminal in both hands. Though symbolic, this gesture is not mortally injurious.
That was not smart, Lucy.