‘Lucy’ and the Evolution of Scarlett Johansson

Two and a half stars (out of four)
R (strong violence, disturbing images, sexuality)
90 minutes

“Lucy” is the exciting next step in the unlikely but intriguing evolution of Scarlett Johansson. I can’t emphasize enough how refreshing it is to witness an actress who was once celebrated for her luscious body transform into an action heroine whose mind is even more enticing than her sleek moves.

Johansson began her career as the girl from “The Horse Whisperer” and “Ghost World.” Thanks to that low, silky voice and those curves, she quickly became a sex symbol. While she has always projected pensive intelligence, she was relegated, in films such as “Lost in Translation” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” to the role of luminous innocent, a childlike beauty never in control of her fate.

It wasn’t until 2012’s “Avengers” that Johansson embraced her potential in the part of the quiet but deadly Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, Nick Fury’s favorite S.H.I.E.L.D agent. Yes, the role requires the actress to squeeze herself into a tight, black catsuit, but the character’s appeal isn’t found in her physicality alone. It’s in her precision, smarts and cool authority.

I think Johansson is the best hope we have right now of someday seeing a satisfying comic book adaptation featuring a well-written, well-acted female superhero. After seeing “Lucy,” I’m even more convinced of this. The film is part of a flawed but fascinating trilogy — along with the recent “Her” and “Under the Skin” — in which Johansson defies humanity, technology and even physics, time and space to become something mysterious and “other.” It’s clear our Scarlett is no longer content to bother with girlish trifles. What she wants now is to transcend.

Transcend is exactly what she does in “Lucy,” rising above the goofiest movie in French director Luc Besson’s prolific and often strange career. Because of her enlightened performance, the film is a lot of fun, until Besson’s silly-pretentious script runs out of steam. I’ll admit I enjoyed it a lot more than I probably should have.

Besson is at his bloody, stylish, Euro-thriller best in the film’s first act, in which we are introduced to the title character, a naïve college student who inexplicably happens to live in Taiwan. Duped into delivering a suitcase to Tapei’s most powerful drug lord (Min-sik Choi) — who is apparently Korean. Huh? — Lucy becomes an unwitting mule, awakening to find that a pouch containing an experimental substance has been stitched into her stomach.

In the film’s most electrifying scene, the pouch bursts, spilling its contents into Lucy’s bloodstream and making its way to her brain, where it unlocks hitherto unrealized cerebral potential. It’s a rush to watch Johansson suddenly snap from quivering victim to calculated killing machine, sending a would-be rapist flying across the room, using her belt to snare a nearby weapon.

Besson is riffing here on the well-worn myth that humans only use 10% of their brain capacity. In contrast, the chemically-enhanced Lucy’s ever-expanding noggin operates at up to 20% and counting. To emphasize his theme, the director intercuts Lucy’s violent exploits with a lecture delivered by a celebrated neuroscientist played by the mellifluous Morgan Freeman.

Freeman’s oratory goes on for so long, it begins to feel as if we’re trapped in a boring science class. When it comes to academics, Besson is something of a cheat, cribbing from such mind-bending sources as “The Matrix,” “Limitless” and the recent “Transcendence.”

The 10% of the brain thing is a fun idea but as the premise plays out, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. As Lucy’s brain opens up — Besson helpfully keeps us appraised of her development by flashing us the latest percentages — she acquires an uncanny new skill set, including telekinesis and the ability to fight off stereotypical Asian baddies, change her hair color at will, manipulate matter and use her mind like a universal remote control for all the radios, light fixtures, computers and cell phones in the world. She also has a killer fashion sense.

Besson contrives to send Lucy to his favorite cinematic location — Paris — to track down what’s left of the drug that is literally blowing her mind, dodging Choi (the star of “Oldboy” deserves much better) and enlisting the help of Norman and a typically Bessonish French cop (Amr Waked). In the City of Light, the director serves up trademark outbursts of violence, including a fairly run-of-the-mill car chase and machine-gun shootout.

A scene in which Johansson literally suspends a gang of astonished gangsters in the air with a flick of her fingers is more promising. If only “Lucy” was content to deliver a high-concept premise and bone-crunching action, along with a few moments of vulnerability. A hospital scene featuring Lucy phoning home to her mother is surprisingly emotional and more evidence of Johansson’s own expanding capacities.

Less successful is the nature footage Besson includes, like shots of cheetahs hunting their prey and a couple of completely nutso glimpses of the original, missing-link Lucy. It’s as if the director suddenly evolved into Terrence Malick.

“Lucy” gets pointedly weirder as it progresses and it isn’t nearly as smart as Besson thinks it is.

Photo: Jessica Forde

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