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Dustin Putman

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Lucy  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by Luc Besson.
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-sik, Amr Waked, Analeigh Tipton, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbæk, Nicolas Phongpheth, Mason Lee.
2014 – 90 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 24, 2014.
Thankfully more "The Professional" than "The Family," "Lucy" is a return to form for writer-director Luc Besson. Faltering none from its breakneck pacing and mind-opening cosmic grandiosity for a full 90 minutes, the film might best be described as a cross between 2006's adrenaline-fueled action pic "Crank" and 2011's existential Terrence Malick tone poem "The Tree of Life." If this sounds like an intriguing step away from the mainstream, it is. Besson asks more from his audience—or, perhaps more accurately, offers more to his audience—than what the advertising has suggested.

25-year-old Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) knows right away that she is in over her head after getting handcuffed to a mysterious locked briefcase and forced by no-good boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbæk) to deliver it to the shady Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik). Narrowly evading execution, she is instead implanted with a pouch of CPH4 and forced into the role of a drug mule. When this precarious substance begins to leak into her system, her normal 10% brain usage starts expanding at an unimaginable rate. With her heightened senses, knowledge and strength turning her into a hyper-aware superhuman version of herself, Lucy escapes captivity and sets out to seek revenge on Jang and his men before she fully succumbs to the drug. Ultimately, as her brain function rises and her need for self-preservation takes over, her mission begins to shift.

From the enticing opening sequence in which Lucy's verbal face-off with a hotel clerk is interspersed with a cheetah stalking a gazelle across the Serengeti, "Lucy" establishes itself as something a little more stylistically and subjectively ambitious than what the trailers have made it out to look like: a female variant of "The Transporter" and other similar Jason Statham shoot-'em-ups. Also right away, the initial fear and helplessness which Lucy experiences at gunpoint, forced to open up a briefcase that could very well hold explosives, signals the film's stimulating interest in extreme fight-or-flight human responses. This is key in coming to care about the title heroine from the start, before one knows exactly who she is and what the film's underlying intentions are.

Dabbling more than a little in realms of science and science-fiction, Besson nonetheless brings plausibility to the implausible by imagining what it might be like for someone whose average brain function has been cracked wide open. Suffice it to say, middling interpersonal problems and everyday concerns mean nothing when placed within the context of a 13.8-billion-year-old universe that will be here long after we are gone and forgotten. In a stunningly performed scene that gives perspective to Lucy's experience, the Taiwan-based protagonist calls her mom back in the U.S. and cryptically tries to explain to her that she feels everything and remembers everything—including, as an infant, the taste of her mother's milk in her mouth. Although her mom does not understand what she is talking about or what dire straits she is in, Lucy knows this could be the last breath of true vulnerable human emotion she will ever feel. It means something to her that she share it with the person whom she loves the most.

With her astounding work in "Under the Skin" under her belt, Scarlett Johansson's banner year continues with another intimately realized character who finds herself alienated from the living creatures surrounding her. In Jonathan Glazer's mesmerizing sci-fi opus, she played a literal alien yearning to acclimate to a planet of living beings she could not understand, and as Lucy she is a young woman infected with an "atomic" drug who uncontrollably transcends to an unfathomably higher plane of consciousness. Lucy's development is slow to unfurl and it would have only helped to give more background for how she has found herself in her present predicament, but what isn't disclosed is made up for by Johansson's stunningly assertive turn. If "The Avengers" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" were not enough evidence, she has what it takes to be a legitimate, kick-ass action star. It is her depth and riveting emotional nuance, however, which will save her from becoming pigeonholed or typecast. No matter what role Johansson takes on, she lifts it to another level.

"Lucy" barrels forward until its breathtakingly auspicious conclusion, its energy never flagging and one particular Paris-set car chase somehow finding a way to be frenetic in the extreme and yet wholly comprehensible. The underwritten supporting cast—Morgan Freeman (2014's thematically similar, intensely dumber "Transcendence") as Dr. Samuel Norman, a human brain researcher whom Lucy contacts; Amr Waked (2012's "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen") as police officer ally Pierre Del Rio, and Choi Min-sik (2011's "I Saw the Devil") as the vicious Mr. Jang—serve their purposes, but this is Johansson's picture to rule. As preposterous as the story grows, its fuller, more provocative impulses relating to the modern world and the way we choose to live in it better reveal themselves. Viewers accustomed to standard, straightforward action films of the mainstream, over-and-done variety might be initially turned off that "Lucy" has a brain to go along with its lead character's limitless synapses. What has been delivered instead—a movie of tireless ideas and exciting stylistic panache, taking one on a tour of existence itself—is so much more preferable.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman