It isn’t often that the roller coaster metaphor holds up with action movies these days. With the overreliance of CG stunts and explosions, Inception-esque foghorn swells turned up to the 11th power and typical running times strolling nonchalantly past the two-hour mark, the adventure picture experience in American cinema has become more akin to spending your lunch break at the carwash: the lights go down, the slap, splash and whooshing is served up in high order but it’s an altogether divorced event that takes you nowhere fast, somehow leaving you feeling a little dirtier—a slice off your billfold and the change from your pockets is all it cleans you of.
Enter Lucy, the latest from French director Luc Besson, whose auteur status seems singularly constructed around his persistent use of visual hydraulics to move his stories forward, sometimes past the bounds of logic, but never losing sight of the interlocking mechanics of the medium: moving pictures.
We pick up on the steps of a lavish hotel in downtown Taipei, Taiwan, where Lucy (played by Scarlett Johansson), a 25-year-old American university student clad in a leopard-print shirt and little else argues with her boyfriend of one week—his greasy appearance capped by a knockoff Stetson, playing second fiddle in what is a delectable duel of bad taste—over whether or not she can do him a solid and deliver a mysterious briefcase to the front desk for a Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). It was never going to end well for either of them, and seemingly before the Stetson hits the ground Lucy is already pondering the bandages covering a fresh incision in her lower tummy, a plastic pouch of a blue synthetic superdrug pressing, unprotected, against the stitches.
If Besson is to thank for just how tightly the picture follows Lucy and her rapid evolution into a hyper-supreme being of limitless ability, Johannsson deserves praise for pushing back against the constraints of the genre, most of which Besson smartly disguises with harmless defiances of logic—just watching Lucy recall the taste of mother’s milk during a phone call home hints at an unquantifiable sum of energy fizzing at the edges of the frame.
Lucy goes from a good action film to a great one in the unexpected moments we find ourselves in reflexivity with it. One such instance sees Morgan Freeman’s classic wise character, here a prominent figure in neuroscientific research, confronted with Lucy at 20 percent of her power. As she details the extent of her developing nature, manipulating the various electronic appliances outfitting his hotel room for show, a look of wondrous bewilderment dawns on Freeman’s face.
I shared that look with him. And as an audience member, you can’t fake that.