I would say that you should check your brain at the door before going into the theater to thoroughly enjoy Lucy, but that’s not quite right. You should check out your brain, have it scrubbed with the magic blue crystals Scarlett Johansson’s titular character accidentally ingests via unwanted surgery, and then pop it back into your skull. All the better to enjoy Luc Besson’s raving madman of a Hollywood action flick, which begins as your typical Asian tourism panic movie and ends with a cracked-out mental journey through time, space, and every plane of existence.
Lucy’s promotion has focused on the whole “you only use 10% of your brain” gimmick. It’s easily-disproved claptrap that somehow remains an agreed-on fact in the general consciousness, but the science (or lack thereof) behind it doesn’t really matter. Besson’s (who wrote and directed) point is just that when Lucy, in Taiwan for reasons unclear and mixed up with a dodgy new boyfriend, gets a bag of synthetic drugs sewn into her intestines that quickly starts to leak, her brain-power doubles, and doubles again, and again. Morgan Freeman is there as a professor to dispense nonsensical-sounding knowledge about what just might happen in this scenario: first she can control every cell in her body, then in everyone else’s, then … who knows?
Besson’s chief advantage throughout his career has been his ability to work outside of the Hollywood system while commanding budgets that suggest otherwise. His 1997 masterpiece (don’t fight me on this) The Fifth Element had all the hallmarks of a big-budget American sci-fi epic, down to the cast, but thrown through a lunatic funhouse mirror. Besson’s subsequent work as a director, aside from last year’s forgotten mob comedy The Family, has tended towards the European, but with Lucy we finally have a spiritual successor. But while The Fifth Element basically retained the “hero saves the day” structure audiences would expect, Lucy spins into even wilder directions for its final act, where our heroine’s brain-power starts creeping towards triple digits.
That’s not to say Lucy is without more conventional action thrills, something Besson has had a handle on since he began his career. There’s a fantastic car chase headed against the traffic through the narrow lanes of Paris. Johansson, who is already a bona-fide action star thanks to her work as the Black Widow in the Marvel universe, kicks, shoots and stabs her assailants (all belonging to some unspecified Korean mob led by Choi Min-sik, best known as the lead of Oldboy) with aplomb. Besson’s pacing is slightly off—for an 89-minute movie, there’s a lot of time given over to the introductory business in Taiwan before Lucy’s brain starts firing in all kinds of different directions.