Flowers for Besson
For a long time there was a disquieting rumour that the directorial career of Luc Besson had some kind of self-imposed limit: Besson having decided as a young man that he was only going to do a certain number of movies and then quit the business. Thankfully (for I always find Besson's movies to be interesting and entertaining), this idea seems to have been abandoned, and indeed – after a fairly long stretch between 1999 and 2010 where his only directorial credits were for the oddball Angel-A and a couple of children's films – Besson seems to be back in the saddle with something like his old regularity.
As a writer and producer Besson is known for a seemingly-endless stream of efficiently barmy action movies, but his work as a director seems to be moving in a more challenging direction. No film is actually easy to make well, but a narrative-driven genre movie is certainly a less daunting prospect than a metaphysical examination of the human condition. For me it is telling that one of Besson's more recent producing credits is for the environmentalist documentary Home, which certainly leans in this direction, and it may perhaps give us a different perspective on his new movie Lucy.
The film opens somewhat unexpectedly with some cells replicating via the wonders of CGI, followed by an equally CGI ape-creature going about its business in the ancient past. But from here we go to much more familiar territory for Besson-watchers, as we meet Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), who is supposed to be a young American woman student in Taipei, although it has to be said neither script nor performance are really convincing on this point. Lucy's sleazy boyfriend co-opts her into making a delivery to Mr Jang (Choi Min-Sik), yet another of those terrifying Asian gang-lords who are such a frequent figure of the Besson canon. The delivery turns out to be of a mysterious new drug, and Jang expresses his gratitude by having a packet of the stuff surgically implanted into Lucy's gut so she can carry it through customs for him.
However, Jang's staff are not quite up to speed on the plan and prior to taking Lucy to the airport decide to have a bit of fun with her. There is a scuffle and the packet bursts, flooding her system with the chemical, the main function of which is to massively increase brain function. The film would have us believe that most people only use 10% of their brains, but in Lucy's case this figure begins to spike dramatically.
According to Lucy, using more than 20% of your brain actually gives you superpowers: the ability to disregard pain and fear, in the first place, but then fearsome bodily co-ordination, the power to manipulate electromagnetic fields, and then more and more cool stuff as time goes by. There is always the danger your body will spectacularly disintegrate, apparently, but the cool stuff surely makes this risk worthwhile. Lucy decides to make use of her new powers by flying off to Paris, where she can find leading brain expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Always assuming Mr Jang doesn't catch up with her first, of course...
There may be some elements of Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon in this scenario, but the most recognisable elements of this film are resolutely old-school Besson: the ass-kicking heroine, the Asian gangsters, the world-weary French cops who show up towards the end. On the other hand, the film rockets off into some very weird areas unlike anything Besson's really touched since The Fifth Element, and he himself has described his ambitions in making it as being a mixture of Leon, Inception, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. So perhaps the polarised reviews and general bemusement which have greeted Lucy are understandable.
Some people have treated Lucy as either a straight thriller or a superhero movie with philosophical ideas above its station, but I think this really does it a bit of a disservice. Right from the start the film is rather adventurously directed, with the opening sequence – Lucy being taken by the gangsters – intercut with thematically-relevant stock footage of cheetahs hunting a gazelle. Even after this, the plot about Lucy and Mr Jang is interspersed with scenes of Morgan Freeman delivering a preposterous bafflegab lecture, which most often consists of his narration playing over cod-profound images of wildlife and nature. It's like a strange mash-up of Nikita with Koyaanisqatsi or Samsara (indeed, footage from Samsara turns up) – but then that's really what Lucy is (I should point out one friend of mine firmly believes Lucy to be a deliberate parody of this kind of arty-intellectual film).
That said, I think it's a mistake to dismiss Lucy as a routine thriller with dollops of added pretension: I got the distinct sense that Luc Besson wanted to deliver a film about the nature of being human and our place in the world, but decided to make it a bit more commercial by adding a few gun-toting gangsters into the mix. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it's utterly ridiculous – at times Lucy does play like an absurd deadpan comedy. It's hard to express just how wacko Lucy gets in its third act without spoiling the plot, but it is waaaaay out there.
Certainly, as an action thriller Lucy isn't going to supplant Leon in anyone's top ten, though this is mainly a function of the plot rather than anything else: Lucy's powers develop so rapidly that the other characters lose the ability to realistically threaten her very quickly, though for form's sake there is a massive gun-battle near the end of the film. This was a bit disappointing as I would have enjoyed seeing Johansson take out a few more vanloads of goons.
On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson gives a seriously impressive performance – rather better than the film strictly deserves, if we're honest. Her fear and distress in the opening sequences (I feel obliged to mention that these do border on the misogynistic, but I expect Besson would defend them by saying they just increase the impact of Lucy's ultimate transformation and empowerment) are replaced by a superhuman detachment and intelligence, but there's also a moment where she tries to describe her expanded perceptions to her mother which is genuinely moving. Perhaps most impressive is her ability to deliver some of Besson's vaultingly silly and pretentious dialogue with an impressively straight face – though this is also true of Morgan Freeman, and the scenes near the end where the two of them earnestly debate the nature of reality while a full-scale gang war rages in the next room are cherishable.
As you can probably tell, I did enjoy Lucy rather a lot: to be honest, the combination of highbrow philosophical SF and old-school action movie tropes doesn't quite work, and the movie grows increasingly absurd as it goes on, but I couldn't help but enjoy its ambition. It is an incredibly ambitious film, conceptually, and if it occasionally doesn't hit the targets it sets itself there is a lot of entertainment to be had along the way. And you have to admire Luc Besson's drive to keep doing new things – this certainly isn't his best film ever, but it's probably his craziest, and that's an excellent second-best.