By Shane M. Dallmann
I had no idea who Luc Besson was back in 1985 or so–I simply took the recommendation of a trusted friend that I ought to check the San Francisco arthouses for a French import by the name of SUBWAY. I did and was captivated by pretty much everything in the film–yes, it took a page from the phenomenally popular DIVA but it was completely its own experience. I saw the subtitled version at least twice on the big screen and later cringed when the dubbed version became the American video exclusive (they didn’t fix that for a VERY long time). It also took me a while to backtrack and catch up with Besson’s post-apocalyptic black-and-white debut LE DERNIER COMBAT. Still, SUBWAY was “my” discovery, so to speak, and by the time Besson struck international gold with THE BIG BLUE and LA FEMME NIKITA, I was already in the know. I also loved his underwater documentary ATLANTIS, and while THE PROFESSIONAL was terrific, there was no going back after seeing the original version of LEON.
After the success of THE FIFTH ELEMENT, things rather fell apart with THE MESSENGER, and while I enjoyed the occasional bright flash like ANGEL-A, Besson became far best known to us as an executive producer and occasional writer, giving us such franchises as THE TRANSPORTER and TAKEN. Meanwhile, his own work became completely unrecognizable (THE FAMILY).
Well, now Besson is back with LUCY, and the high-profile casting of Scarlett Johannson in the title role guarantees the film plenty of opening-weekend exposure at the very least. So now that Besson is back in the world of fantasy, what does he do with it?
You know from the previews that LUCY involves a young lady who inadvertently receives a powerful dose of a synthetic drug that has the power to increase one’s “cranial capacity”–that is, to unlock the entire vast potential of the human brain. Popular science has it that we only make 10% of the available combinations of neurons, whereas dolphins (and dolphins alone, so far) take it further. Besson’s script spells it out in greater detail and wisely uses Morgan Freeman as the voice of professorial authority and the person Lucy needs to seek out when she discovers what’s happening to her.
LUCY could easily have gone in the direction of a simple superhero adventure, but the film makes it clear that this is NOT necessarily something you would want to have happen to you, particularly when you learn that you’re not likely to survive (at least as you understand yourself to exist) more than twenty-four hours.
But I’d rather not spell out the details–I’m happy to report that the TV spots did NOT blow the entire movie (much as they seemed to). All you need to know is that Lucy is invested with this power completely against her will (not to mention inadvertently) as part of a global smuggling scheme into which she’s dragged by a lout of a boyfriend; and that mob lord Choi Min-Sik is on her trail from Taipei to Paris, hoping to reclaim what she has (and kill her, of course).
Now, as an action-adventure, LUCY delivers from scene one–the film is brutally efficient as Lucy makes good her escape and tries to accommodate her ever-expanding role in the universe… there’s no shortage of violent action, car chases and demonstrations of superhuman abilities, all state-of-the-art (though we were spared the inconvenience of a 3-D conversion–it’s just fine as it stands).
But Besson takes things so much further, traveling back in time as he does (both literally and metaphorically) to re-establish and expound upon the film-making identity he established back in the 80s… in addition to the slam-bang femme fatale (as in NIKITA), you have the fascination with nature (THE BIG BLUE, ATLANTIS) and the responsibilities inherent in life itself (THE FIFTH ELEMENT) as well as the bits of whimsy that made SUBWAY such a treat (the innocent bystander witnessing the car chase comes to mind)–and yes, the icing on the cake is that none other than Eric Serra is back in the composer’s chair.
LUCY goes everywhere and will drive some people to distraction with its refusal to simply play “superhero.” The science can, no doubt, be picked apart and shouted down should experts desire to do so… well, be my guest, because it doesn’t alter the wonders of science fiction in the least. LUCY is equally visionary and entertaining from beginning to end, and I think it’s Besson’s best work since LEON (yes, I quite liked THE FIFTH ELEMENT, but LUCY does not feature an appearance by Chris Tucker. Need I say more?).
And I think it’s safe to say that there won’t be a franchise in the making. LUCY stands alone and comes with my enthusiastic recommendation.