Thank goodness (or the goddess) for male directors who dig strong female characters. Whatever their reasons, these directors often expand the range of roles women play, whether it?s one of Howard Hawks? dames calling the shots or one of James Cameron?s.
That the French director Luc Besson, an industrious multi-hyphenate, has a thing for femmes fortes has been evident since 1990, when he unleashed a pouty toothpick in La Femme Nikita, a delirious, violent fantasy that turned an outlaw into a gun-toting gamine and an exploitable commodity that, in turn, spawned both an American big-screen remake (Point of No Return) and a television series.
Besson?s particular kink for fatal female beauties receives an entertaining workout in his latest film, Lucy, in which he again introduces a young woman who undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis that leads to convulsions of extreme violence and an increasingly frenzied visual style that lay waste to both men and any semblance of story sense.
The nonsense begins when the title character - played by the improbable yet somehow perfect Scarlett Johansson - is pulled into a head-scratching plot in Taiwan, put into motion by a crime boss, Mr. Jang (the excellent South Korean actor Choi Min Sik). He?s set to begin peddling an experimental recreational drug that she accidentally ingests, and in such enormous quantities that she?s soon transformed from a slacking expat into super-Scarlett.
Johansson?s rise as a major star is largely interesting because of its familiar reflexivity. Over a career that began in childhood - something that she shares with Elizabeth Taylor, along with sexual expressivity - she has taken on her share of unexceptional girls and women, but as her fame has increased, it?s become difficult for her to convey normality persuasively. Even when she has played more stock roles, she radiates extraordinariness, whether as a lust object in Don Jon or a dangerous agent in Marvel?s Avengers series. More unusual is her disembodied turn as a computer program in Her and her fleshed-out performance as a man-baiting, clothes-dropping E.T. in Under the Skin, both expressive of elusive, tantalizing, otherworldly stardom itself.
Given this, Lucy can?t help registering as the latest brush stroke in Johansson?s emerging portrait. The movie opens with her character - cheerfully frowzy, with swinging earrings, teetering heels and the telltale cheap cat-print adornment - arguing with a shady type, who turns out to be a new fling. They?re just two little people dwarfed by the surrounding towers of power, one of which is soon splattered with blood and carpeted with shattered glass and bullet casings.
Besson isn?t a director who likes the slow boil: One minute, Lucy is a good-time gal unencumbered by a pesky back story (history and psychology aren?t essential elements in his auteurist arsenal); the next, she?s embroiled in an intrigue that goes from Asia to far-outsville.
Fueling this trip is the drug that, Lucy discovers after a blackout, has been surgically embedded in her tummy. Along with a handful of disposable types whose fates are sealed by their flop sweat and forgettable faces, she has been forcibly recruited as a drug mule. None of it makes much sense, but then Besson has never been one for narrative logic, being a bigger believer in the distractions of fast cuts, ping-ponging camera moves and spectacular bloodshed that sweep you up and away.
He?s also good at casting, and Choi and Johansson are fun to watch as the action cranks up, and the drug leaks into Lucy?s system. It?s then that the movie goes from hyper to hyperkinetic: Suddenly she?s climbing the walls and scampering across the ceiling and into freedom, having tapped into newfound eerie powers. Yeah, the chase is on.
In between bullets and brawls, Besson throws out a lot to explain Lucy?s transformation, including reams of on-screen text and one Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Freeman may have taken a break from playing God, but his character is another gloss on his familiar role as the resident kindly father figure who, until the story goes haywire, shepherds the younger co-star and the audience both. Specifically, Norman has charted the brain power of humankind that explains what?s happening to Lucy. (Seriously, he uses charts to explain his ideas to an audience that?s a stand-in for us.) Lucy seeks him out, having realized that her rapidly escalating physical supremacy is part of a one-woman human potential movement that?s leading her into total awesomeness. She aches just like a woman (well, at first), but breaks like a god.
Buoyed by Johansson?s presence, Besson keeps his entertainment machine purring. He may be a hack, but he?s also a reliable entertainer, even when he?s recycling other directors? ideas (a pinch of David Fincher here, a dash of Christopher Nolan there), or giddily engaging in slaughter and racist stereotypes. This is, after all, a movie that, stripped of its gimmick, comes down to a white woman being chased by hordes of Asian men.
Besson?s thoughtlessness in this regard reaches an early nadir when Lucy shoots a Taiwanese man, nominally because he doesn?t speak English - a death that?s played for laughs. The scene?s vulgarity recalls Indiana Jones? jokily shooting a sword-wielding Arab in Raiders of the Lost Ark, proving yet again that what looks new in Besson?s work is invariably old.