I (Don't) Love 'Lucy,' but Luc Besson's Latest Film Is Fast and Fun

Scarlett Johansson is transformed into a superwoman in an action film that takes an ironic view of sexual politics.

Lucy Written and directed by Luc Besson; with Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-sik, Amr Waked, Pilou Asbaek

Female empowerment is the main theme of “Lucy,” the new film by French director and producer Luc Besson. In 1990 Besson gave us “Nikita,” the story of a woman who becomes a skillful assassin; in his 1994 “Leon” he invented a 12-year-old girl who befriends a hit man; and in 1999 he offered his own take on the story of Joan of Arc. In these earlier movies, Besson offered a romantic perspective on women’s empowerment; in “Lucy,” this now-cliched term is handled as somewhat of a joke, but we can accept the result, because Besson seems aware of what he is doing. He does not mean to belittle women’s empowerment, but rather to pay tribute to it by inflating it to hyperbolic dimensions, full of amused irony about relations between the sexes.

This irony can be seen, for example, in the fact that “Lucy” is an action movie presented as a lecture, and a lecture presented as an action movie. The subject of the lecture is the evolution of the human mind, and right from the beginning Besson illustrates his topic with National Geographic-type images and voiceover narration by the heroine. Soon afterward, when the action element of the plot is already in high gear, we meet another character, Prof. Norman (Morgan Freeman), who is lecturing to a large audience about the human brain. The professor claims that although we have steadily evolved, we only use about 10 percent of our brain’s abilities; he does not know, he says, what would happen if someone were ever to figure out how to exploit in full what the human brain can do. Well, that is exactly the scenario that “Lucy” plays out for us.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), an American student in Taiwan, finds herself pulled into a drug deal by Richard (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek, familiar to us from the Danish television drama “Borgen”), whom she has only just met. And it’s not just an ordinary drug deal: The drugs in question are of a new kind that can extend the abilities of the mind. Overseeing the deal is a Taiwanese gangster named Mr. Chang (Choi Min-sik), whose minions force Lucy and several other victims to carry the drug into Europe in small plastic bags that are inserted into their stomachs.

But then large quantities of the drug leak into Lucy’s body; her brain develops and develops – Besson shows us the percentage rising – and she is transformed into a superwoman, who then decides she does not need to submit meekly to her fate. Her memory and senses sharpen so that she can remember the taste of her mother’s milk; she also develops a range of wondrous physical abilities that allow her to move through time and space, incapacitate any adversary she faces, and take down her enemies with cold precision (she can even drive, even though she never learned how – making it possible for the movie to include a car chase with a staggering number of casualties).

With her stiletto heels, tight black dress and gun, Besson’s Lucy does not wander in the sky with diamonds; instead, she moves from Taiwan to Paris, where she meets Prof. Norman, who is naturally fascinated by her evolution. She also contacts a police inspector (Amr Waked), who watches the feats she performs in amazement, and shoots her way through the full 100 percent of human mental ability. “Lucy” is a very violent film with an extremely high body count. Besson, however, does not document this carnage in the same way a Western does; he almost never savors the blood and gore. After all, “Lucy” does not take itself seriously, and for us to take it seriously would be the worst possible mistake.

Of course the plot is completely implausible, but that is part of the fun offered by this utterly minor picture. Besson knows that his movie is far-fetched, and he enjoys that, as do the actors. Scarlett Johansson is excellent in the lead; her serious portrayal of Lucy seems somehow to include a sly wink at the audience, with the help of her face, which is expressive even when set in a permanent scowl of resolve. The same goes for Morgan Freeman, who usually plays paternal authority figures – he was God in “Bruce Almighty” and its quasi-sequel – and whose role here borders on self-parody. In general, “Lucy” does not give a very favorable view of the male sex. Even when the men in the movie are positive characters, they are presented as helpless weaklings in the face of the heroine’s metamorphosis. They spend most of their time gaping at her seductive figure, whose emerging abilities only stun them further.

Another virtue of “Lucy” is that Besson manages to squeeze its plot into a mere 89 minutes, making for a fast-paced, focused result. This is not the kind of movie in which you fill up time with more and more variations on the same stunt, and the effect is refreshing. As a writer and director, Besson apparently knew that a lecture should not exceed its allotted time, and that if a joke runs too long, it stops being funny.