There’s a refreshing lack of bull in “Lucy.’’ Two minutes into the movie, the titular heroine, a twenty-something raver (Scarlett Johansson) is forced by a d-bag boyfriend (looking like the world’s worst Bono imitator, complete with red sunglasses and cowboy hat) to deliver a mysterious package to a Taipei crime lord. Five minutes in, she’s sliced up, stuffed with the package’s contents – a potent new mind-expanding synthetic drug – and turned into an unwilling mule. Ten minutes in, a kick to the stomach leaks the drugs into her system, rebooting Lucy into a real-world, super-blonde version of Neo from The Matrix. It’s a superhero story that tells the origin tale with an economy and conciseness that’s been lacking through this whole movie summer. Actually, it’s been lacking in these types of movies for a while. Remember how long the Ang Lee version of “Hulk’’ took to get to the action? Yeah, “Lucy’’ presents the exact opposite.
After that quick introduction, “Lucy’’ stays pedal-to-the floor for all of its brisk 89 minutes, as the newly-empowered Lucy sets off to track down the rest of the cartel’s unwilling mules, all while the drug unlocks more and more of her brain’s potential (with the bad guys chasing after her). There’s a helpful and creative bit of exposition into the drug and the mind-expanding theory that drives “Lucy,’’ shown through the Paris lecture of a Professor Norman (the always reliable Morgan Freeman), who details his theories on the unrealized potential of the human brain. While he’s speaking, halfway around the world, Lucy is beginning to discover the same powers Norman is conjecturing about. As the drug runs deeper and deeper into her noggin, her brainpower percentages increase (these are helpfully displayed on screen, in big black-and-white numbers) – and so do her abilities. She busts out and guns down her captors like Rambo. She mind-melds into a brain like Spock. She flings around the cartel bad guys like Magneto, feels living life-forces like Luke Skywalker, drives like Jason Bourne and even jumps through time and space like Doctor Who. Who needs Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye and the rest of the Avengers? Lucy could demolish them all, and probably Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman, too. She could take care of the next two movie summers with no trouble at all.
The director and writer of “Lucy’’ is Luc Besson, the French action auteur whose best movies showcase these memorable female leads. His original feature, the taut and entertaining “La Femme Nikita,’’ starred Anne Parillaud as a street junkie turned secret agent. In “The Professional,’’ it was the aspiring assassin Mathilde, played with beyond-her-years brilliance by Natalie Portman. In “The Fifth Element’’ (a movie that seems to gain in stature with every year), it was his ex-wife and frequent collaborator Milla Jovovich kicking off her underrated career as the tape-dressed, ass-kicking creature Leeloo. As a progressive action director, he doesn’t have a peer in the industry.
He’s also incapable of making a boring movie. Even his messes – the Jovovich-starring Joan of Arc story “The Messenger’’ comes to mind – are at least propulsively entertaining, even when they don’t make a whole lot of sense. “Lucy’’ succumbs to that at times, occasionally lapsing into silliness. Lucy’s trek-through-time warp includes a dinosaur appearance, for example; maybe it’s just being from the “Jurassic Park’’ generation, but if there’s a dinosaur in your movie, the whole rest of the film better be about dinosaurs. Call that the “Tree of Life’’ problem (sorry, I’m still trying to figure out why that movie got the kudos it did).
Still, though, even the zaniness and some of the high-hokum mind-expanding dialogue is nothing less than watchable, thanks mostly to Johansson’s presence. She’s spent the better chunk of the last few summers providing ensemble-ized kicks and bullets to the various earthbound and alien menaces in the Marvel universe, and it’s a delight to see her take the lead in this one. She progresses from party-bound raver to terrified captive to steely superhuman with ease, turning that voice that was so memorable as object of desire in “Her’’ into a captivating monotone as her mind and abilities expand. Johansson’s super-overqualified for the material, but she gives the movie a depth and emotional center that would have been hamstrung with any actress of lesser talent. Combine that with Besson’s action chops – he pulls off some stunners here, particularly in Lucy’s convulsing, “Exorcist’’-tremors-level initial reaction to the drug – and the film reaches that “Dredd’’-like state of “accessible, fun action hit that could have been released in 1994.’’ The two make a shoulda-been B-level movie into a solid A-. In this summer of Hollywood underperformance, it’s nice to see that at least one movie can provide a bit of efficient throwback entertainment. In a better movie environment, this would be a pleasant little dessert. In this one, it’s a main course.