Lucy (15A) - 'A thriller with brains to burn'
Lucy is a lot better than it sounds, says Paul Whitington
In the mid-1990s, writer/director Luc Besson threatened to open up a Gallic second front in terms of big-budget action films. Movies such as Léon and The Fifth Element were cleverly pitched somewhere between Paris and Hollywood, and mixed flashy visuals and recurring science fiction themes with the fast pace and brutal violence of Hong Kong crime thrillers.
But his success in America was relatively fleeting and, to be honest, Mr Besson's work has always left me cold.
Though sometimes astonishing to look at, his films are hard and bleak, stiffly artificial and curiously lacking in humanity. His elaborate conceits often fail to include believable characters, and tend to fade fast from the memory. But I shouldn't think I'll be forgetting about Lucy any time soon.
Lucy is a brash, breezy and breathlessly paced thriller, with a high-concept plot that falls apart the moment you start thinking about it. But Besson's camera moves so fast that you rarely get the chance, and the director is also blessed with a charismatic leading lady who's currently at the top of her game.
Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, a 25-year-old American girl who's living what looks like a fairly chaotic existence in Taipei. When we first meet her, she's standing outside a fancy high-rise hotel, arguing with her idiotic ex-boyfriend: she dresses gaudily, chews gum and appears to have exceedingly poor taste in men.
When he tricks her into delivering a suitcase to a sinister crime boss called Mr Jang, Lucy enters the lobby and is instantly surrounded by Taiwanese gangsters who abduct her and force her to ingest a dodgy-looking blue crystalline drug.
When she comes to, she finds out that an entire bag of the stuff has been sown into her abdomen: it's a synthetic drug called CPH4, and Lucy is to transport it to Europe - or else. But while she's in captivity, one of the goons very unsportingly kicks her in the stomach, bursting the bag and releasing more of the drug into her system. She goes into a kind of chemically induced fit, and emerges from it a very different girl indeed.
While Lucy's writhing around like a freshly landed salmon, we cut back and forth to a lecture held by one Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), who waxes lyrical on the idea that your average human only uses 10pc of their brain's potential, and wonders what might happen if we managed to access 20, 30 or even 50pc.
That's exactly what's happening to Lucy of course, because the CPH4 has unleashed untapped potential, quickly allowing her to move and think at lightning speed, read other people's minds, shift inanimate objects and alter her own appearance at will.
She breaks free, killing all her captors (Lucy kills a lot of people, without a second thought) and sets out to have a stern chat with Mr Jang. But Lucy also has a thirst for knowledge to fill her rapidly expanding brain. "What happens at 100pc?" a student asks Professor Norman. "We're reaching into the realms of science fiction," he replies sagely. "We just don't know." We don't, but we're about to find out.
All this 10pc of the brain stuff is absolute horseradish of course, which is why Mr Besson had the good sense to hire Morgan Freeman to say it - when he's talking, you'll believe just about anything. But the film's dodgy science doesn't matter a jot, because Besson tells his story brilliantly, and at breakneck pace.
Before you know it, Lucy has boarded a plane for Paris, where she steals a police car, careers around the city on the wrong side of the road, and engineers a meeting with Professor Norman, the one man who may be able to save her.
Those car chases are brilliant, as are the effects generally, and Lucy climaxes in a mind-bending pseudo-scientific finale that has echoes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001. But for all its busy-ness, the film only works because of Johansson, the brave, charismatic and curiously still heroine around whom all the action spins.