With the exuberant and unabashedly ludicrous Lucy, vulgar auteur Luc Besson finally commits wholeheartedly to his decades-long preoccupation with waifish young women discovering their inner Shiva, spinning the concept out to its most delirious possible extremes. From Nikita to Mathilda to Leeloo, the collective arc of Besson’s superheroines has always teased apocalyptic potential and, now, behold Scarlett Johansson as death itself, destroyer of worlds. Of a piece with her work in Under the Skin, the actress’s mesmerizing performance is key to the film’s base delights, giving them a dash of extratextual frisson. After all, the act of casting her as a post-human entity whose first kill is facilitated by a sexual gesture could easily be interpreted as high-level trolling or, worse, distasteful fetishization. But if such intentions exist, they’re consistently undercut by Johansson’s canny reappropriation of her public image as predatory Other, a focusing of individual mystique into what adds up to nothing less than the fully realized female superhero DC and Marvel have proved reluctant to deliver on screen.
The origin story is suitably absurd. Lucy, an American student in Taipei, is coerced by her lowlife boyfriend into delivering a suitcase to what turns out to be a hotel suite full of murderous gangsters. Led by a glowering megalomaniac, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik), they press her into service as a drug mule, sewing a bag of experimental narcotics into her stomach. When the bag is accidentally punctured, its contents enter her bloodstream, granting her godlike control over body and environment by enabling access to more than the normal 10 percent of her brain. The comical pseudo-science that drives this premise has already been turned into grist for social-media snark mills, but, presented here in the amusingly hokey form of an intercut lecture from Sorbonne professor Dr. Norman (Morgan Freeman), it only enhances the film’s shameless and altogether endearing mugging. The mouthfuls of jargon are just one of the ways in which Besson attempts to walk the line between sublime stupidity and the pop profundity that occasionally comes off like 2001: A Space Odyssey filtered through the sensibilities of its moon-watching ape.
If that sounds like mockery, there’s a genuine appeal to the winking pseudo-intellectualism on display throughout the film, especially as it swells into a conceptually audacious finale that sees Johansson’s Lucy become—to return to Hinduism—progenitor as well as destroyer. Besson lacks the intellectual rigor to successfully realize the ambition evident in that metaphysical third act, but it’s still exhilarating to watch him try. He’s on surer footing with the film’s action elements, reveling in the bloody swathe that Lucy cuts through her enemies on her quest to reach Dr. Norman. In an era of sterile PG-13 action films, it’s almost refreshing to see that distinctly French brand of I-don’t-give-a-fuck splatter across the screen in such Grand Guignol fashion.
Aside from one big set piece in the form of a Ronin-inspired car chase, most of the action is gratifyingly small-scale, not to mention visually coherent, with Lucy taking it to Mr. Jang and his army of thugs with telekinetic powers and mundane weapons alike. The film veers close to amoral territory when Lucy shoots a taxi driver for proving uncooperative and kills a hospital patient so the surgeon can fix her up instead. Besson pulls those particular punches at the last minute by demonstrating that the cabbie survived off screen and the patient was about to die anyway, but the whiff of bad taste remains, an asset rather than a liability to something that would have played in grindhouse theaters 30 years ago. Lucy is the sort of film that lays itself wide open to accusations of being dumb and offensive, but, ultimately, it’s that very gormlessness that makes it fun, as it evinces the courage of its outré convictions.