Friday, July 25, 2014

In Theaters: LUCY (2014)

(France - 2014)

Written and directed by Luc Besson. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-Sik, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton. (R, 89 mins)

Where most auteurs start with genre efforts to get their feet wet and mature into serious filmmaking, Luc Besson's career has largely been the exact opposite. Early films like LE DERNIER COMBAT (1983) and THE BIG BLUE (1988) exhibited art-house aspirations that culiminated in his 1990 classic LA FEMME NIKITA, which perfectly combined his artistic and commercial sensibilities.  You could say the same for 1994's THE PROFESSIONAL, aka LEON, initially dismissed by most critics but now considered one of the best films of its decade.  1997's THE FIFTH ELEMENT has amassed a large cult following, though 1999's THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC was badly received and prompted Besson to take a lengthy sabbatical from directing. These days, Besson is best known for his EuropaCorp action assembly line that gave us Jason Statham's TRANSPORTER and Liam Neeson's TAKEN franchises, films directed by Besson proteges yet exhibiting all the signature stylings of their boss. After last year's disappointing gangster comedy THE FAMILY, Besson is making a quick return to American multiplexes with LUCY, which has enough scientific theorizing in it to make it seem like Besson's most ambitious film yet. Instead, it's his dumbest.

Equal parts Besson action movie and "Luc Besson's COSMOS" if the confused director was mistakenly getting scientific and philosophical consultation from Mike Tyson rather than Neil DeGrasse Tyson, LUCY is an absurd sci-fi outing that has occasional flashes of fun but just gets arduously tiresome the longer it goes on. Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, an American college student in Taipei who's forced by her dirtbag boyfriend (Pilou Asbaek) to deliver a briefcase with unknown contents to psychotic Korean gangster Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik, the original OLDBOY). Inside the briefcase are bags of a synthetic drug called CPH4, and Jang's men sew it into her stomach, forcing her to work as a mule. Before she can get to the airport, an altercation with some of Jang's goons causes the bag to break and the drug to leak into her bloodstream, giving Lucy an increasingly heightened sense of awareness. She soon has the ability to control everything around her, starting with people and moving on to electronic signals and matter itself. Making her way to Paris and teaming up with cop Del Rio (Amr Waked), Lucy tries to make contact with renowned scientist Prof. Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman), one of the world's leading experts on brain function, with Jang and his underlings in hot pursuit.

"I'm in, Luc.  No, don't send the script.
Not gonna read it anyway. Here's the account number."
It's Norman's assertion--and Besson's as well, I suppose--that human beings use only 10% of their brain capacity. As the CPH4 is absorbed by Lucy's body and completely overhauls her chemical structure, her brain rapidly begins increasing in power.  At 20%, she can control electronic signals and communicate with Norman through the TV in his hotel room. At 30%, she can diagnose undetected health issues just by touching someone. By the time she reaches 50-60%, she's able to control the thoughts and actions of those around her, manipulating matter and even time itself. As Del Rio and the French cops battle Jang's army in a huge shootout, Lucy goes on her own version of the Stargate sequence in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, transforming into a black, sinewy human computer as she travels back through the dawn of time, starting with Native Americans and going back to cavemen, dinosaurs, and eventually, the Big Bang.

Its in the last third that Besson totally goes off his rocker and LUCY becomes a self-indulgent action version of THE TREE OF LIFE. But honestly, LUCY just never works. Besson fails to get any momentum going early on by running two parallel stories--Lucy being cornered and trapped in her situation with Jang is frequently intercut with a heavy-handed display of stock nature footage and Norman lecturing to a large auditorium of students and fellow scientists at a Paris conference. The science is mostly made up by Besson, but the real problem is that the cutting to Norman grinds the film to a halt in a way that recalls Steven Seagal's mumbling environmental speech at the end of ON DEADLY GROUND, only spread apart to constantly interrupt any suspense or action that might be developing. A barely-awake Freeman, in his second terrible sci-fi movie in the last three months (anyone remember TRANSCENDENCE?), has obviously stopped giving a shit and will apparently read whatever is handed to him. It's nice to see Choi doing some vintage OLDBOY screaming, but he has little else to do. LUCY might make an interesting companion piece to Johansson's recent UNDER THE SKIN as both films require her to rely on an otherworldly stare and an innate seductiveness (and both films have her utilizing a mysterious, undetermined black matter), but LUCY goes in an opposite direction as her character becomes more unemotional and alien as the story proceeds. And the comparisons end there. There's some amusing moments as Lucy experiments with her newfound powers, but such bits are few and far between, and even a big action sequence like a car chase is ruined by crummy, carelessly-executed CGI and gratuitous shaky-cam. Besson tries to make some grand, life-affirming points about humans living to their potential, which he probably intended as something profound and powerful, but instead comes across as an utterly tone-deaf lack of self-awareness.

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